When my son was very young, his challenges, in all settings, seemed insurmountable. In particular, the thought of taking him out to church, school, a grocery store, or really anywhere that involved the public sector made me break out in a cold sweat. Not to mention the fact that my daughter’s car seat was next to his, and his tantrums were not pleasant. But we did what we had to do. I will admit that oftentimes, I felt like Eeyore and had no intention of finding my tail. In my state of mind, I imagined all the looks and stares were of disdain. I imagined people thinking I was a bad mother who had no control over her child. I did my best to ignore the looks and stares until one horrible grocery outing when an older gentleman paused, smiled, and asked if he could help. You see, his grandson had autism. His kindness was overwhelming. Later that day, a thought came to mind: “Could it be that some of the other looks and stares were not of contempt but of compassion?”
Something else amazing started to take place in my perception. It started with my daughter’s little 3-year-old voice, “Oh Mommy, Trevor just needs me to hold his hand. See.” I looked in the rearview mirror, and sure enough, his hand was in hers, and she was gently rubbing it. (This is still one of his favorite things.) After a few tears of joy slipped out, another thought took seed. My daughter was developing an empathy and wisdom beyond her handful of years. In that moment, I stopped worrying about the possible negative impact that having a brother with unique challenges might have on her and embraced the wonderful positive impact instead. Trevor is now 19 and his sister is 21. She is his champion, advocate, and friend! Our story is not just our own! It is shared by many of my friends and families on a similar journey.
But this blog is not about that. This is a challenge to you, reader – whether you are a parent, family member, co-worker, or professional – from a seasoned mom. This is also a note of encouragement to those who think you cannot make a difference. YOU can! Think of the effect a small pebble can make when thrown into a large body of water. The ripples far exceed the point of entry. (I know this from watching my son throw countless rocks and sticks – and other objects I shall not name – over the years into ANY form of water, including toilets.) The grandpa who took the time to speak to me that day in the grocery store sure made a difference to me, and his kindness has affected how I interact with others.
Challenge One: Take time to thank
Recently, I received an amazing email. It was from a young lady who was my son’s shadow for Special Olympics when he was in sixth grade, seven years ago. She had found a thank-you card that Trevor and I made in appreciation for her willingness to volunteer and help him have a good time. The email went on to say how the experience had affected her in ways she could not have imagined at the time. She is our current Ms. North Carolina.
Challenge Two: Take time to ask
So many times, our kids and adults with ASD are turned away and denied access for no reason from clubs, venues, and even faith-based communities. I wish I could say that this is not common, but the Autism Resource Specialists at ASNC hear this from families whom they serve all too often. Many years ago, some folks at my church approached my husband and me because they noticed we were going to church separately. We were playing tag team so that one of us could stay home with our son. They asked us what they could do to help. What started off as baby-sitting developed into a special-needs ministry over the next 10 years.
This is a community challenge as well! Businesses, clubs, organizations, philanthropic ventures and so many more are looking for ways to help in their communities. That help could be as simple as providing transportation to appointments, organizing supper clubs, helping self-advocates find jobs, or creating sensory-friendly movie experiences. The list of possibilities goes on. It can even be as simple as asking a caregiver whether they need a hand when they seem overwhelmed. A smile of encouragement can mean the world.
Challenge Three: Take time to get involved
When he was just a little guy of 4, Trevor started to do some inclusion both at school and at church along with other kids with similar challenges. I have to confess that I heard the grumblings of some parents of the “neuro-typical” kids. Things like, “What if they have behaviors, will they hurt my child?” “Will my child copy their behavior?” (Trevor was a hand flapper and toe walker.) And my all-time favorite: “Is this really the most appropriate place for them?” The kids and students, on the other hand, were elated and excited to have them come into the class. WOW! They would argue over who got to help them and even had to make a “friend helper chart” to take turns.
A WHOLE NEW CULTURE and generation had the opportunity to take hold. Within a couple of months, teachers, parents, and administrators were talking about the amazing impact the inclusion was having on them all. Specifically at church (a controlled group, for my data-driven friends), the kids grew together as the years passed. These children went on to REQUEST to work with the kids in the self-contained class as volunteers and peer buddies in their elementary, middle, and high schools. Some have chosen fields such as special education, speech therapy, and child-life specialist. This has truly changed my perspective on how far-reaching inclusion really can be.
Again, this “beautiful phenomenon” is not limited to my story. It is the experience of many. I spent some time asking professionals of all types what got them into the field of autism. How they came face to face with someone on the spectrum (of all functioning levels) varied. Some volunteered at events because their parents made them or because they thought it sounded like fun and they got out of class. Some had a relative or neighbor with ASD and they liked spending time with them. However it happened, they all had one thing in common: it was akin to love at first sight. They were hooked and knew that they wanted to work with, serve, and enhance the lives of this population.
In closing, each of us can truly make a difference in creating change to the perception of ASD, whether it be in ourselves or in others. Never think that what you do is too small. Every bit has impact beyond what we can see.
There are many caregivers who can barely see beyond the next day, and we need to stand in the gap for them. It really is about our choice, our choice to see the silver lining, even if it seems dim at times.
So take the challenge, and make a difference!
Kim Tizzard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-865-2269.Tags: ASNC, Asperger Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome, autism, autism advocacy, autism asperger parenting tips, autism awareness, autism behavior, autism nc, autism north carolina, autism society north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, autism support, Developmental disability