Maybe I am getting old, but it does seem like talk of Christmas starts earlier every year. We are only just over Halloween, and already the shops have festive music, selection boxes and wrapping paper in prominent places! But as a trained teacher, there is one place I totally understand preparing early for the holidays, and that is schools. There is a presumption that schools and churches will put on an annual play or concert of some sort, and the organization involved in these is tremendous. It can take months of preparation to teach children songs, practice words and prepare costumes. It is a highlight of the year for many parents and children.
This year, my daughter, who just turned 8, has asked not to be in the Christmas play.
At first I was disappointed, as Christmas is one of my favourite times of year, and both my church and her school put on wonderful shows. But when she told me why she didn’t want to be included, I actually cried.
“I don’t enjoy it at all,” she told me.
It is my duty as a parent to listen to my children and support them. She has a right to choose. My daughter has selective mutism, anxiety and autism. Being on a stage in front of others, remembering stage directions and song words, and wearing itchy costumes is something she finds stressful. She finds the change of routine difficult and the noise frightening. The thought that everyone is looking at her makes her feel physically sick.
I realized I wanted her to be part of it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted it for me, not for her. I didn’t want her feeling excluded or feeling like she was missing out. But in actual fact, I was putting her in a situation that made her uncomfortable and stressed.
This year, I will watch the church play and her school play. No doubt I will still cry at “Away in a Manger” and beam with pride at the children in the plays. Instead of watching my little girl perform, I will have the beauty of holding her hand as she sits next to me and cheers for her friends. She will sing the songs happily, and for the first time, I will manage to hear every word as her beautiful voice is right next to my ears. We will laugh together at the fun parts and share the experience in a way she finds relaxing and enjoyable. It will be magical, but in a different way than I imagined.
It took courage for her to be able to tell me something she knew I would find difficult to hear. She knows how much I love watching her do things, and she knows how proud I am of her. This year she knows I am extra proud at the fact she felt she could tell me she doesn’t enjoy being part of the Christmas play.
I will never forget her smile and the sparkle in her eyes the night I told her how proud I am of her for not being in the Christmas play this year.
It is OK to be different. It is OK to say no sometimes, too.
People don’t understand my limits when I feel too overwhelmed at the end of a long work week to go out on a Friday. They take things personally when I decline their invitations.
I used to get caught up in upsetting them. One day, like a light bulb going on, I realized I was not responsible for their feelings.
Taking on too many things is not good for my health. Social activities, although enjoyable, are tiresome to me, especially if they take place in a busy environment.
I may choose to stay in, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to go out.
I’ve learned that limiting activities that drain my brain, especially during and around busy work weeks, is something I have to do. If I don’t conserve my energy at home, I won’t have the energy to do my job.
My job can be stressful but it’s actually a fun job, and I enjoy it.
I always want to be fresh and ready to do my best at work. That means taking care of myself — mentally and physically, eating healthy, and getting plenty of rest. I need to be sharp in order to work.
When I was doing one of my first internships at Autism Speaks in 2010, I answered over 1,000 emails from parents/caregivers on how to help one of their loved ones on the autism spectrum. During that time, I gave advice on early intervention, therapies, schools, transitional programs, IEP meetings, social skills, visual schedules and much more.
Each time one of those questions came up, though, one of the constants I always reminded them about was this:
As time has gone along and I’ve traveled the country speaking about my journey on the autism spectrum, I adopted a new saying I share with those who reach out to me on Facebook looking for advice. In addition to the above, now I also say…
“Autism doesn’t come with an instruction guide. It comes with a family who will never give up.”
Autism is not one-size-fits-all, so for everyone out there reading this, just remember to never give up. We learn more and more about autism every single day. I’ve overcome many of my challenges from when I was younger, and one of the reasons I advocate today is to help others do the same.
I gave birth to my son just before I turned 25 years old. By that time, nearly every person in my small circle of friends and larger circle of co-workers/Facebook friends I haven’t spoken to face-to-face since high school had already started families of their own. So when my son was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old and I began delving into research about neurological developmental disorders, I made a connection with the staggering statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data identifying one in 42 boys on the autism spectrum. One in 42.
I didn’t personally know any other children on the spectrum at that time. I didn’t know any parents facing the questions and concerns my husband and I faced. We walked a very lonely road for some time. But I did the math. I thought of all the young mothers and fathers I knew, and I came to a realization: As they continued to add to their families, another set of parents would find themselves in our position, navigating life with a child on the autism spectrum. As more of my friends announced pregnancies, I secretly wondered who it would be.
In the last two years, two of my friends’ young sons have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. During those same two years, the world of social media and blogging introduced me to even more beautiful families of children with autism — shout out to my girl Shannon and my favorite Instagram follower, Little Aidan. I am so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to bond with these parents.
Recently, one mother text-messaged me to discuss some frustrations she’s been facing. I listened and I promised her I always would. Because we need each other. So this is my public promise to any mother or father of a son or daughter with autism spectrum disorder:
I promise to let you vent if you ever need to. I promise to always remind you of how far you’ve come. I promise to ask about your child. I promise to ask about you. I promise to laugh with you and your child, and I promise to love his/her quirks. I promise to support your relationships and be there if you need to walk away from unsupportive people. I promise to share resources. And I promise I will celebrate every milestone and every bit of progress you and your child make.
When I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at 15 years old, I initially shrugged it off. It didn’t really mean anything because I hadn’t changed at all. I didn’t even really know what autism was.
But then, people around me began to change. They changed the way they treated me. Instead of getting upset over things I didn’t understand, they started to calmly explain stuff to me. So I started to look into what the diagnosis was about. I read a chapter of characteristics in a book, and things began to make sense. No wonder I struggled so much with reading comprehension and social situations! So that’s why I’ve always been so “obsessed” with “The Lion King”!
Once I learned more and could see the people around me were listening to my issues, I started to become an advocate. I found that just by sharing my own life experiences, I could help others. I loved answering questions about myself, knowing I might make a difference for someone else.
But one question was always difficult for me to answer.
I never really knew what to say because I received my diagnosis a bit later. I was more capable of understanding it on my own or at least finding the answers myself. How could a parent or caregiver share this complicated information with a child so they would understand it but still feel OK?
The answer came to me one day when I was volunteering at my local museum for their Sensory-Friendly Day. And it didn’t come to me from talking with an adult. It came from a young boy on the spectrum himself. He said it perfectly.
“I have autism. Sometimes, I struggle with things like looking people in the eyes. But it also means that I have a great imagination.”
So to those of you out there who are wondering how to tell your child they are on the autism spectrum, look no further. Tell them they are on the autism spectrum. Then explain that sometimes, it means they have a hard time with things. List a few small struggles they have. After that, make sure to mention how it contributes to their many, many strengths. Be honest, and remember to keep it positive.
People with autism are said to have difficultly recognizing and interpreting emotions in themselves and others. I say, likewise people without autism may have difficulty recognizing and interpreting the emotions of autistic people.
I feel all sorts of emotions, though I may not display them or process them in the manner most might expect. For example, a smile often means someone is feeling happy. Well, when I’m feeling happy (and I do experience many varieties of happiness), I tend to make what many people would consider a brooding or serious face. Most times when I’m happy, I’m in deep concentration or meditation on what is making me feel happy, so a smile wouldn’t necessarily manifest. Think of someone who’s performing a high-skill task that requires concentration, like welding. Do you usually expect to see welders smiling gaily while blow-torching steel? (Maybe there’s a few who do, I don’t know.) For me, a certain type of happiness, especially if it’s focused on an external source, will consume a large amount of mental energy, and I’m like the welder who’s focused on the immediate. I’m consumed by the here and now when I’m in the midst of my feelings.
You can then probably imagine how grief might manifest itself. And it has for me in very awkward and uncomfortable ways. It tears me to pieces, sometimes to the point where I crack and begin to laugh uncontrollably. I’ve fallen into bad graces with others over my laughing during funerals and during moments where others would be crying or showing some other physical sign that denotes unhappiness. Here’s a personal example — there was this time, after my mother died back in 2010, when I was in the last two months of pregnancy with my daughter Aitza, that the reality of a maternal absence took me by surprise. I was washing my hands at the bathroom sink and looked into the mirror, and I saw my mother in my own face. I was reminded I was without her; it was the first time that her death registered. Instead of sobs, I began to cackle while tears burned my eyes. Someone looking at me may have thought I was watching an unbelievably hilarious stand-up act. People in the audience at a Lewis Black show often look like I did that afternoon. Inside me, the grief was pulsing like gushing water, and it quickly escalated, roiling into panic. This was an overwhelming, contradicting combination of emotions. I don’t know how many others feel grief this way.
From what I could gather upon questioning acquaintances on the personal experience of their emotions, I sensed my own are unique. You could say I get quite drawn in by my emotions — I inhabit them and interact with them; they comprise worlds. There are unpredictable stretches of time when I get “lost” in those worlds, and it’s difficult to emerge disengaged. Maybe this is what major depressive disorder was like for me before I went into remission, and because my face seldom fluctuates in its expression, my debilitating experience of agony was likely not registering to others. I wonder if this may have been what made me seem unreachable to the people of my past — why now estranged relatives and friends may have been unable to empathize with me. Just because I may smile or seem to have no expression at all, doesn’t mean I’m not feeling pain; it doesn’t mean I am beyond struggling and am robotic.
There are times when I feel very deeply, just by the sights, smells and sounds of my surroundings. It’s not all frightening, though it has the potential to be so, especially if I’m in a place chock-full of the sort of stimulus that is painful to me, such as a grocery store with all of its clanging and clashing shopping carts, loud music on the speakers, cold freezer isles, flickering fluorescent lighting, oscillating multicolored and checkered floor tiles, and shoppers bumping into me as they pass briskly.
And then there are the rare occasions I come into contact with live chamber music in a local library, and I instantaneously transform into a weeping, blubbering mass of humanity whose loud sobbing disrupts the quiet and pensive audience I didn’t notice on my way through the doors. Live violin and cello music is a big weakness of mine. Through the vibrations, which I can feel deep inside my ears and in the hairs on my head, I feel something else beyond the music being heard. I have felt this way with Celtic drums and Inuit throat songs. Humans making music is magic, and I can’t help but notice that.
There are those more frequent times when I am not even experiencing my own emotions, but rather I feel as though I am absorbing in a deep physical and psychic way the emotions and physical sensations of the people surrounding me. It is hard, outright impossible, for me to sort all of it out, and I end up being tricked into thinking I am the angry one, when the man next to me is the one mentally cussing out the driver who rear-ended him during rush hour. This may be why visits to the ER are especially agonizing for me; I find the sensory-grating hospital environment in combination with the palpable pain of other patients often ramps up my own pain. And the eyes. Oh, the eyes transmit so much information, even though I am not capable of sorting through all that information and classifying it. I just don’t seem to have the wiring. And I think this is why I can have difficulty looking into others’ eyes, touching people, or even sitting in the same room with them a lot of the time. This could be one of several reasons I need to seek out a small corner of space that isn’t occupied by anyone other than animals when I’ve had enough of feeling.
I’m beginning to gather — from observations throughout my life, from what I’ve personally experienced and the anecdotes I’ve read — the dissonance I experience may be the pain of “otherness.” The extent to which people seem to engage with emotion, whether in themselves or others, seems to factor heavily into my experience of otherness. Up until very recently, my otherness caused me to experience great emotional and physical struggle. Now, that is beginning to change. When I utilize the power of my emotions and accept that they will never cease to be my world, that they will always be both my biology and psychology inextricably entwined, that I cannot be cut away from them and that is OK — the social stigma I’ve internalized begins to fade, and I’m more apt to live in a society that is still catching up with its emotions. I believe my emotions have the power to teach and to reach. They enrich, they give, and even the negative ones are invaluable, irreplaceable components of this human existence. I think with the more we discuss the myriad ways we are able to feel, we can finally get past awareness and acceptance and be at the point of valuing every individual’s heart and mind.