April is Autism Awareness Month and each year I like to share a personal story about my family’s experience with the disorder in an effort to raise awareness, dispel myths, and promote neurodiversity. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect over 3 million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide. While there remains no definitive cause or cure for the disorder, we can all show our support for individuals living with ASD by educating ourselves about the condition, supporting organizations like Autism Speaks, and listening to (and hopefully sharing) the stories of life “on the spectrum”. Here is mine:
This past summer, I think that I may have experienced one of the proudest moments that I’ve had as a parent. I arose in the middle of the night to take my anxious but excited autistic 14-year-old son to the airport. He had a 6:00 a.m. flight to catch and the airport is two hours away. It was not his first time flying; but it was his first time traveling alone. The thought of putting your child on a plane by his or herself is unnerving enough for parents of neurotypical children. Most parents of a child on the spectrum wouldn’t even think of it. But I’m not most parents. Never have been.
Since the day that we received his diagnosis, I have been laser-focused on raising an independent, confident, and self-aware young man. Like Ray Charles’ mother in the movie Ray, I didn’t want my boy to be a cripple. I didn’t want him to end up as someone’s charity case. I didn’t want him to view his disability as a perpetual handicap, always rendering him helpless and less than. I wanted him to grow up understanding that he is differently-abled, as we all are, and that he does not have to be defined by his limitations. To raise a child this way means taking risks. It means allowing him to struggle sometimes so that he learns how to rescue himself. It means treating him as I would any other child and not accepting autism as an excuse. It means trusting him to fly 2,000 miles by himself.
As we sat at the gate waiting for boarding to begin, I glanced at my lanky, awkward boy (looking far younger than his 14 years). He had his eyes closed and was taking deep cleansing breaths. It’s a coping strategy that he learned in therapy. It was in this moment that I knew he’d be alright. He was learning to take care of himself and defeat his own fears. As he walked down the corridor and onto the plane, I relinquished everything to the heavens–my faith in God, my faith in my own unorthodox parenting skills, and my faith in my brave, brave boy. While I waited to see the aircraft taxi down the runway carrying my precious cargo, I noticed another set of parents doing the same. Their eight-year-old son was flying alone for the first time as well. As the father very visibly struggled to fight back tears, I leaned over and reassured them, “He’s gonna be alright.”
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