Making Peace with Autism Today
Autism takes many forms, yet it’s very misunderstood in the general population. The old stereotype of a child rocking in a corner, unable to speak or function, still comes to mind for many. I see this in the faces of people when I tell them that my son is autistic. People don’t know what to expect. The range of disabilities experienced by people with autism is so broad that they could only describe it as a spectrum: hence the official name, autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Today, many people diagnosed with ASD are extremely high functioning and able to make their way in mainstream society—albeit while experiencing difficulty in varying levels and forms.
When you recognize the signs of autism in your child or loved one, the initial reaction can be devastating; a period of pain, fear, and grief naturally ensues. Discussions of the cause and cure become like trying to determine what started the fire while the building is burning down— they are secondary to finding immediate, healthy, long-term strategies for survival and success. Eventually grief, by its nature, grows into acceptance of a new reality: a life with autism. Along the way, many parents (like me) have wondered if it is possible to really make peace with the presence of autism in their child’s life and in their own lives.
It is possible to make peace—there is so much reason to hope for our children and for our families. Developing a meaningful, satisfying, and healthy relationship with our loved one on the spectrum is doable. First, it requires shifting our mindset to exit the initial crisis mode and begin to adjust our expectations and approaches to the individual. A proactive decision to play the cards we have been dealt in the best way possible sets off a series of insights and changes in attitude, expectations, and actions that maximize the outcomes for our autistic loved ones and ourselves. As parents, we are part of the autism equation, too.
As our understanding grows, we adapt our methods of relating and communicating to better suit our autistic loved one’s understanding of the world. Because those individuals with autism are not receiving and integrating social information like the rest of us, their motivation and social frame of reference is quite different. As a result, their behavior can appear offensive to the uninformed bystander. When we understand how autism affects the thinking and behavior of our loved ones, we can adjust our reactions to promote a better response from them. We can begin to take action to create fertile ground around those with ASD to enable them to achieve the most they can, and to help them become comfortable in their own skin.
All of this is predicated by staying healthy ourselves. We need to learn self-care strategies to take care of ourselves emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically, because the individual on the spectrum probably will not recognize or attend to our needs as we might have once hoped or expected. We must seek out the validation and support of others who understand the unique impact on our lives when we love someone on the autism spectrum. With this one skill, we can compensate for many of the difficulties we face when autism invades our world.
By accepting my circumstances and managing them well, I have found that I have been led down a path that I could never have predicted—and I have received many gifts that I would have never discovered if I had not made peace with autism in my life.
Jeanne Beard has decades of experience with Asperger’s syndrome and autism spectrum disorders. She is the author of Autism & the Rest of Us: How to Sustain a Healthy, Functional and Satisfying Relationship with a Person on the Autism Spectrum. Visit her at autismandtherestofus.com.