What I Learned When My Partner Accepted My Autistic Son for Who He Is
The speech therapist looked at my son, T, expectantly. She had placed a few household items in front of him, gave him time to look at them, blindfolded him, and then removed two of the items and his blindfold. This activity was meant to build his vocabulary and boost his memory. For much of T’s early life, this was a typical afternoon. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was around 3 years old, and a cadre of therapists were an everyday part of our lives.
As a parent, when your child is autistic, you are often trained to notice what’s amiss. He’s not imitating others enough. He’s not participating in symbolic play. He should be more engaged with children at preschool/in the neighborhood/on playdates.
This information is helpful to therapists and clinicians who structure programs and recommendations based on your child’s current abilities. However, it’s often not helpful when it becomes your primary focus. As T missed milestones (or met them shakily), I grew hypervigilant. When he was learning to get dressed, I promptly commented his shorts were on backwards. Regretfully, I often told him before he could notice it himself, depriving him of the opportunity to learn and gain self-reliance.
It was a stressful few years, and downtime was nonexistent. When you’re preoccupied with what’s “missing” in someone else’s life, ironically, you fail to notice what’s missing in your own. My life had lost all balance and was overrun by to-do lists and anxiety. As T grew older, things got a bit easier. He started attending kindergarten full-time, developed a love of books and music, and was riding his scooter at dangerous speeds around the neighborhood. I started sporadically seeing friends again and even joined a tennis league. It was the first time I had started feeling like myself again after my marriage ended.
When I met Mark, I was heading out of the weeds, but I was still primarily focused on T’s IEP goals and how to integrate him socially into the classroom. At their first meeting, T dragged Mark upstairs by the hand to show him his bedroom within seconds of meeting him. When they didn’t come down for five minutes, I knew it was a good sign.
At dinner, I jokingly apologized for T holding Mark hostage in his room. Mark was unfazed. Instead, he relayed what they chatted about — T’s fire truck, how dark his room could get, the ceiling fan, and how much T seemed to like his room. I was surprised, waiting for Mark to describe the interaction as “unusual” or “unexpected,” but that discussion never surfaced, and we easily moved on to other topics.
As Mark and I grew closer, so did Mark and T. Mark accepted T as he is — which laid the groundwork for their relationship to flourish. During T’s fascination with All Things Bear, Mark listened to endless facts about bears, had countless bear conversations, and even surprised T by dressing up as a non-hibernating bear last winter. He happily took turns pretending to be different characters in “Fireman Sam,” T’s favorite TV show. When T discovered his inner cyclist, Mark was always ready to accompany him on a ride. Watching Mark immerse himself in T’s world with interest, enthusiasm, and no hidden agenda was magical. In turn, T became more communicative, flexible, and open to learning new things, like pumping a bike tire and building with Snap Circuits. Within a few months, T nicknamed Mark “Marky.” Like clockwork, at around 5:30 every evening, he’d ask, “When is Marky coming for dinner?”
When someone accepts your child as he is, it can shift your focus from what is “missing” or what “needs to be changed” to the amazing child who’s right in front of you. My partner showed me that people outside of my immediate family can see and accept my son for who he is — with all of his strengths, challenges, and quirks. It’s an important reminder that when people are seen and respected for who they are, it makes it that much easier for their best selves to emerge.
One day, I was listening to an episode of “The Tim Ferriss Show,” and his guest, Greg McKeown, said the following: “If you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. And if you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.” This deeply resonated with me. As a parent of a child with autism, facing everyday challenges is often a way of life. However, those challenges become less daunting and more manageable if you choose to see – and celebrate – what’s right in front of you.
This story originally appeared on Love That Max.
Image via contributor.