Special-needs child offers hidden blessings
JO ASHLINE / FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
There are certain things the doctors won’t tell you when they diagnose your child with autism. As a parent, you have to figure them out on your own, navigating your new reality.
That our son, Andrew, would likely never speak was covered thoroughly in the first fateful appointment, when autism was no longer an abstract term describing something happening to someone else. That he would require lifelong care was also at the top of the doctor’s checklist, and my husband and I listened carefully – if a bit numbly – to the many ways our lives would change.
That we would lose friends. That our son would make loved ones uncomfortable. That we would be jealous of those in our lives who didn’t share the same challenges we did. And the only way to know this would happen was to experience it firsthand.
It didn’t take long to realize raising Andrew was going to be a vastly different parenting experience than that of my girlfriends, none of whom had a special-needs child.
Play dates became a source of stress and anxiety as I watched my son sitting alone in a corner somewhere while his peers played cheerfully together, engaged in games of tag and hide-and-seek.
Mommy group meet-ups at local parks left me feeling alone and frustrated, and even though I was surrounded by other moms, isolation and loneliness followed me wherever I went. No one in my social circles could relate to the many challenges I faced as a mom of a child with special needs.
Every milestone celebrated by high-fives and adorable photo sharing among these proud parents only served to highlight how far behind Andrew was and all that he continued to miss developmentally.
It’s hard to know which came first: my unwillingness to maintain the majority of my friendships because I was exhausted and envious, or the gradual withdrawal of the people in my life who didn’t quite know what to make of my circumstances.
Increasingly concerned and confused about what to say and how to behave in my presence, friends began to withdraw. I, too, became a reluctant and flaky participant in the activities I had enjoyed in the past. Soon my days were spent alone with my son, who sometimes seemed like a stranger I was meeting for the first time. My mothering instincts were no match for the utter helplessness I felt as I watched Andrew regress and succumb to silence.
The beginning of our journey with autism felt like the end of the world as we knew it.
Nine years into this special-needs parenting gig, I’m wiser and stronger than I ever thought possible. Andrew, too, continues to make progress in areas I once thought were impossible. He has taught me to remain optimistic and humble. What I once thought was a life sentenced to only pain and challenges is a life filled with much joy and celebration. He has also taught me the value of friendship. What felt like a loss years ago, as I watched friends retreat into the background until they all but disappeared, has instead been a hidden blessing, as real friends began coming into focus.
Andrew became a natural filter for unnecessary drama in our lives. If the cost of keeping someone in our social circle outweighed the benefits, it was Andrew who provided us with the insight to let those relationships go and find something better in their place.
And so we have.
For years now, “quality over quantity” has been our mantra, and it has served our family well. The few strong, close girlfriends I have are loyal, honest, loving and completely accepting of my special-needs son.
Actually, it goes beyond acceptance – the friends in our lives today love Andrew and treasure him for the incredible little boy that he is. They visit him in the emergency room without being asked, and help him through difficult procedures.
They drop off bags of his favorite food – grated white cheese that has to be exactly the right temperature – not because they have to, but because they want to. They open their homes, guide their children in socializing with him, offer to baby-sit when they see the deepening circles under my eyes.
They are an integral part of a village I once thought had to be enormous to matter. But all it truly takes is a few devoted and loving members to make all the difference in the lives of a family like mine.
So many gifts have been bestowed upon me as a parent of a special-needs child. I am more open, forgiving, patient, compassionate and grateful for the little things than I ever would be without my son’s constant influence in my life.
The greatest of these gifts has been knowing who my real friends are and embracing the real definition of friendship.
It’s in the most difficult and vulnerable moments of our lives that we should be able to turn to the people we call friends for support, whether it be moral, spiritual, physical or otherwise.
Being there for someone whose life seems seamless and effortless doesn’t take much work or sacrifice; being a dependable and loving presence in the life of someone who seems to have more than their fair share of challenges is where the true source of friendship resides.
I cannot recall the names of the people who abandoned ship when the going got tough for our family, but the names of the few but mighty whom I’m blessed enough to call friends are forever etched into my heart, a place where each one of them is held in love and gratitude.
I’d single them out here, one by one, but they already know who they are.
Jo Ashline, an Orange County resident, is a mother of two. Find out more on her website, joashline.com.