Reflections of the Birthday Girl
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Tomorrow, I will celebrate my 43rd birthday. I was 33 when Yael was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) and our family’s life on the spectrum began. That means that I have lived a decade of my life with autism as a constant family companion.
So, what have I learned in that decade? Well, to begin with, I have learned the importance of good hair dye and a great hair stylist. Yes, that’s right, believe me when I say that I am fairly certain that life with autism caused me to go prematurely gray. Investing in a good wrinkle cream ain’t a bad idea either!
I have learned that I am far stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. There is a warrior inside of me, always ready to go to battle for my daughter. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but she’s there. I have adopted the good manners & pleasant demeanor of the south, but I can get my tough New York attitude on when life requires it!
I have learned that laughter really is the best medicine. Life on the spectrum will fill your days with many unexpected twists and turns. You’ve got to fight the inclination to get caught up in road rage, and try to find some humor in the ride. If not, you’ll crash and burn! And nobody wants to see that happen!
I have learned that the big picture is too big for me to grasp. It overwhelms me. I take each day, week, month and year as it comes. I don’t know how far my daughter will go, but I can see how far she’s come. Progress on the spectrum must be measured in baby steps, but as the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And for every step forward that my daughter takes, autism will surely create some new obstacle down the road that will lead her to take a step back. That’s okay… we have a GPS, and we’ll find another route to get her where she needs to go.
I have learned that patience is not always a virtue I possess, and that I need to work on digging deeper into those reserves, even when time is short and energy levels are low. Autism can demand a lot of attention at times, but my daughter’s feelings and sense of self deserve even more. I’m going to keep working on that one.
I have learned that you can’t take this journey alone. You need to surround yourself with the love of family and friends. They may not live on spectrum, but you can help them to know, understand and accept your world. And if along the way, you meet people who can’t offer you that unconditional support, you need to part ways and move on. There is no room for judgement on the spectrum. As Kenny Rogers said, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”
I have learned that our educational system has a very long way to go in leaving no child behind. It continues to anger, sadden and frustrate me, that I have to fight so damn hard to make our society see my child as worth investing in. She is as full of love, life and potential as any other kid and deserves to be treated as such. I could rant on and on about this particular topic, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, I have learned that advocating for my daughter is a full-time job and there are very few vacation or sick days in the job description. It’s also a position with no formal training and no instruction manual! It’s called learning by the seat of your pants, so be sure to buckle up.
I have learned that stupidity & ignorance can show itself at any time in any place. Somebody will be there to offer unsolicited advice or judgement, telling you all of the things you are doing wrong as a parent. Try to hold your head up high and answer that stupidity with dignity, pride and self-respect. And if, on occasion, you need to give stupidity and ignorance a bit of a tongue lashing, well, I’ve been there and I totally get it.
I have learned that we are all entitled to a good meltdown now and again. It can be tiring trying to navigate through life on the spectrum. You make a lot of wrong turns, run into dead ends, need to back up and find another route. Every now and again you’ve got to cry that ugly cry, indulge in a boatload of chocolate, grab a night out with your hubby, your friends or both. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll never make it through the journey.
I have learned that I can’t parent all three of my daughters in the same way, and that sometimes Yael needs more than her sisters do. It isn’t always fair, I get that! But, I love all of my children with equal measure and even if I can’t always dole out equal amounts of time and energy, it doesn’t change that fundamental fact. I am only human, and there is only one of me, so I have to be more forgiving of myself when the slices of pie don’t always measure up (or when that pie has to be store-bought, instead of homemade). It won’t always be Yael that gets the largest piece, that’s simply not how life works. I need to make sure all of my girls know that.
I have learned that George Michael was right when he said, “You’ve got to have faith.” Autism is a maze, and it isn’t always easy to find your way, in fact at times it is downright hard. My faith continues to be my compass and, no matter how lost I feel, it somehow guides me back home.
I have learned that motherhood is unpredictable, even without a special needs child. Autism was never part of my plan, but it is part of my reality. So, I can choose to get caught up in the fantasy of the life I dreamed of, or embrace my reality and live it to its fullest potential. I choose the latter.
I have learned that I don’t give a crap what label my daughter has to be given, nor do I care what other people think of that label. Autism is not a dirty word. “My daughter is autistic!” There, I said it. So what?! I’ll shout it from the rooftops too. She is also funny, kind, compassionate, sensitive, smart, brave, generous and beautiful. As a matter of fact, on this, the day before my 43rd birthday, let me proclaim that when I grow up, I only hope that I can be half the human being that she is. If I can measure up to that, than I am doing just fine.
“Don’t go through life, grow through life.’ (Eric Butterworth)