Sunday, February 1, 2015

Autism Connections

Somehow we just know. Maybe it’s the lack of eye contact, the toe walking, or the hand flapping, or even more likely the way the parent helps the child navigate a public place, but those of us whose families have been touched by autism recognize each other almost immediately. Knowing that staring is hurtful, we watch surreptitiously to confirm our suspicions that they, like us, belong to the autism club none of us ever wanted to join. If our understanding gaze is met, we smile and try to convey that we empathize. Often, we do not speak—like our children with autism, we’re not sure what to say in the situation. Somehow just knowing that we’re not alone comforts us and reassures us that others are dealing with lives similar to our own.

Other times, the signs are more obvious, and we can connect beyond the knowing look and sympathetic smile. For example, last summer when Alex went for his routine blood tests, which he thankfully finds fascinating and handles amazingly well, the lab technician interacted with him with such ease and compassion that I suspected she had some first-hand knowledge of autism. As I noticed an autism awareness ribbon on her identification lanyard, she told me to ask for her specifically whenever Alex needed blood draws and explained that she, too, was the mother of a child with autism. Quickly, we compared notes, discovered several similarities between our children, and felt a sense of relief to talk with another parent who understood raising a child with autism.

Similarly, when we took Alex a few months ago to a new doctor for a check up, I was pleased to observe that the nurse knew how to engage him and make him feel comfortable. While she spoke to him sweetly, she never treated him like a child, nor did she act patronizing to him because of his disability. Once again, I noticed that she was wearing an autism awareness pin on her identification lanyard, and I asked her about her interest in autism. She explained that another nurse in the office has a son with autism and gave all of the nurses autism awareness pins to wear, which I thought was a great idea. Not only could this autism mom and her co-workers promote autism awareness, but also by wearing the pins, they immediately identified themselves as supportive to any families dealing with autism. All of those nurses with their autism awareness pins demonstrated that their office was a safe place where parents knew their children with autism would be welcomed and understood.

Other times, we dance around the details before we figure out our common link of autism. A few months ago, I was talking with my doctor’s nurse who was checking my blood pressure, and I commented that my blood pressure was amazingly good, despite the stress of teaching middle school kids and raising a “high-maintenance” son. Like typical mothers, we chatted briefly about our sons before discovering that both of our boys are on the autism spectrum. As in other similar situations, I felt relief to find someone who truly understands my situation as an autism mom and wanted to share as much information as possible within a short period of time. Now that she and I know that bond we share, we will smile knowingly at each other, cognizant of how our lives parallel.

Last night, we took Alex to Target as a reward for a good week in which he was cooperative with all of his therapists and us. Happily looking around at various items in the store, he was delighted to find a special 80th anniversary edition of Monopoly, his favorite board game. He was even more delighted when I reminded him that he had Target gift cards his aunts and uncles had given him for Christmas that he could use if he wanted to buy the game. Immediately, he decided that he wanted to spend his gift card on that special edition game and cradled the box in his arms as he carried it to the checkout counter. As Alex stood patiently waiting to check out, smiling because he found the special game, I noticed the cashier watching him. Unlike the mean girls in Burger King who stared and snickered at him last week, this young woman had a kind way about her. Of course, Alex was oblivious to her because he was just happy to be getting the game he wanted. She asked him, “Is this game for you?” and he just smiled. She then told him that he hoped he liked it, and I prompted him to thank her, which he did quietly.

After she placed the game in a bag and handed it to Alex, he and Ed moved out of the line and waited by the door for me to pay. Hesitantly the cashier said to me, “I miss my old job and the special needs kids I worked with.” I knew she recognized Alex’s autism and wanted to let me know that she understood him. Addressing the elephant in the room, I told her that he has autism, which confirmed what she probably suspected, and she told me that her sister has autism. Once again, members of the autism family club had found each other, and we nodded knowingly. She asked me about his functioning level, and I explained that he is verbal, even though he doesn’t talk a lot, and he’s toilet-trained, so we are fortunate. Then she confided something that made me know why she wanted to engage me in conversation.

“I’m worried that my ten-month-old baby girl has autism.” She explained that because her sister has autism and because she has seen signs in her daughter, such as hand flapping, she has concerns. Listening sympathetically, I nodded and hoped that her suspicions are wrong. She told me that she would keep watching her baby and if the signs continued, she would have her evaluated for autism. Trying to reassure her as the line of customers behind me reminded me I had little time, I told her that I was sure she was doing the right things. I also told her that I hoped her suspicions were wrong and that her baby would be all right, but I also reminded her that because of having a sister with autism and working with special needs kids, she would know what to do, and her daughter would be fine. While I hoped I had said the right things to reassure her, her eyes filled with tears as she smiled and thanked me.

Once again I realized that Alex has an important role in life as an ambassador for autism. People recognize his weakness in the disability, but they also see the strength in his joy and the progress he has made. Because of him, we have connected with wonderfully compassionate people who understand what we have faced because they have dealt with similar issues. Although I wish that none of us had to endure the difficulties autism presents, I’m thankful for the support we families can give each other as we wait for our children to be healed.

“And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love.” Romans 5:5

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