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Finding a Different Kind of Happy as Parents of a Child With Autism

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In my experience, happiness has an interesting ability to shift shapes. Just like a liquid, it will seep in, squeeze into, or fill up your life, no matter what your circumstances. Everyone finds their reason to be happy. So when we got our son’s diagnosis and realized that all the reasons we had borrowed from the world around us to define what happiness should mean to us needed to be dumped or redefined, we were devastated. In retrospect, I believe the shock of the diagnosis and what we believed it meant led us to sift through our future life events and foresee nothing that would bring us joy. But I believe happiness finds its way. Always.

For almost a decade, I have been through self-doubt a million times. I have wondered whether what I call happiness — is that real or is that a pretension of happiness? Am I trying to look away from our grief and our worries by putting up a facade of a smiling face and an ignorant glee? Am I mistaking something else for happiness because I fear I’ll have very few reasons for it?

When children my son’s age were making friends and setting up playdates, we used to get excited if our son said a “hi” back or waved back or turned around when we called his name. While his classmates were discussing their favorite superhero or sports person, we were smiling all day over the fact that our son was able to say “water” when he was thirsty and “cereal” when he was hungry. When his classmates were composing small poems and writing essays, we were ecstatic over the fact that our son could identify his letters.

Now, when he is almost 12, we have not stopped raving about the fact that he can type and spell his name. I don’t remember how many videos I have made of him typing his name and I am sure my friends are being polite by not telling me that I have already shared those videos with them more than a couple of times. Although our happiness seldom overlapped with what other parents were rejoicing about, we found our own reasons to smile.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s delusional of me to spend most days laughing, playing, and running around with my son, talking to him about random things while he looks at me with his big, curious eyes when I should be worrying sick over the fact that I still need to help him with all his daily routines. Is happiness playing tricks on me, or am I generally content with our lives? Have I made peace with my situation and allowed happiness to permeate our lives? I find myself questioning this every so often.

Recently, someone close celebrated a huge milestone for their child — something I believe it’s unlikely my son will achieve. While I rejoiced in their happiness, I came back home wondering if I will ever be at that stage where they are; will I ever experience happiness like them? As I was mulling over these questions like I had done so many times in the past, I shared my thoughts with my husband. Without missing a heartbeat, he replied: “Of course we will be happy! We will be a different kind of happy!” It was a simple phrase, but it hit the right spot in my heart, blowing away my reluctance to be happy with abandonment and bringing in the gentle breeze of complete acceptance.

A different kind of happy is what we are. That’s what defines our happiness. Our happiness is more in the little things — a new word said, a different texture tolerated, an unexpected warm hug, a failed attempt, but an attempt nonetheless, a full night of sleep, a clumsy dance step but a step all right, a song we attempted together with him mumbling along, that shriek of joy when we take him to the pool, the laughter when we push him on the swing, the giggles that come with him riding a bike on his own, a new skill mastered that they thought he might not, a picture where he looked right at the camera, his delight when he gets his favorite ice cream. Our reasons for joy are countless and unique.

Happiness does not elude us, it just comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors for us to experience it in all its beauty. It might not look like your kind of happy because it’s ours — a different kind of happy. I believe no matter what your circumstance, happiness will find its way in your life. How it presents itself, you need to discover. In our case, it took the form of our son.

Originally published: April 20, 2021
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