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What My Daughter With Autism Has Taught Me About Winning

As Simone Biles debates wage on social media and across dinner tables everywhere this summer, I’ve been distracted by another young woman who I know would understand and salute Biles’ decision to give herself a time out. My daughter, Erin, who has autism, does not care about the Olympics or gold medals, but she knows what it takes to practice self-care and to be happy.

When Erin was born in London 20 years ago, I imagined that maybe someday she’d win Wimbledon. I grew up playing competitive tennis so it seemed an entertaining speculation. Little did I know how much this child had to teach me about what it means to win.

Since she could hold a marker, Erin has been practicing how to write her name. While it’s still a work in progress and I have faith she will get there, over the years Erin has taught me that knowing how to write your name is not as important as knowing your name — and the names of the people you love.

When Erin meets someone named Tommy, she lights up and says, “We have a Tommy,” referencing a childhood friend who lives next door.

She’s also eager to learn the names of all who cross her path. As she studies the person at the Stop N Shop checkout she never fails to ask, “What’s your name?” Men and women on the other side of counters everywhere look up, somewhat perplexed, smile and reply, “And what’s yours?”

Erin knows her name.  She knows what she likes, what she doesn’t and where she wants to be.  If the day is not going in the direction she likes, she has been known to stage a sit-in. As much as this tactic drives me up a wall at times, I have come to admire her resolve and sense of purpose.

Erin has taught me if you are not happy with the moment, do whatever it takes to change it.  She understands that when you are feeling sad or overwhelmed, it’s OK to just sit on the stairs — her signature move.

As much as Erin inspires introspection, she’s also taught me to embrace exuberance and spontaneity.  She’s taught me to celebrate the small things, like hearing your favorite song at CVS.  She’s taught me to track the days by the people we might see and to mark the months by the birthdays and holidays they hold.

She’s taught me it’s OK to jump up and down when you are happy and there is no right or wrong time to hug someone you love. At one point, in an entirely pre-COVID exercise in personal space, Erin was given a “hug schedule” at school. This made no sense to her and it did not last long.

I imagine much of the world does not make sense to Erin. She doesn’t understand the fuss over anyone taking a step back from loud noise and bright lights. She watches her three younger brothers race to school and practice, their moods measured by wins, losses, scores and GPAs. She’s never won a trophy. She has a few participation medals, which hold no weight to an outing with Grandma or sharing an ice cream with Pablo her service dog.

For Erin, a trip to the library is a reason to smile, a win is time with someone you love and the stairs a steady refuge on a down day. Unless the All England Club instates an all-tie-dye rule, Erin won’t know or care about Wimbledon. But my girl knows her stuff and she’s taught me well.

Getty image by Josu Oskaritz.

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