It’s Building Character: A Dad’s Perspective

This week, I am happy to conclude my Guest Blogger portion of Autism Awareness month with my husband, Tom. Tom is an amazing dad to our three children and adds a great perspective of our parenting journey through the Autism Diagnosis of our three beautiful children. He tells his journey in an authentic and genuine way. You will most definitely be blessed.

Since Megan launched this blog a few months ago, it has been exciting to see the feedback that has come. Whether it’s people laughing at the Woodies Wisdom posts on social media or the weekly blog, there has been a ton of response about how it’s been uplifting or encouraging. After plotting this for years, I am so glad it’s now live and having the impact it is.

I am delighted that Megan would ask me to be a part of the blog this week! As a part of Autism Awareness Month, she asked if I would share a few thoughts on being a dad with kids on the spectrum. Firstly, let me say that because Megan loves me she would never say anything negative about me, especially not on a public blog…so I guess I’ll have to rat on myself 🙂 Below I’ll write about 3 things I wish I could have/will do better.

1. Denial. 

When we first had reason to think Elijah had autism, I did not want to even consider it. (Megan has written about the diagnosis process in previous posts.) My own insecurities, unwillingness to ask the tough things and fear meant that I ignored a lot of things and tried to explain away some very obvious signs. Seriously…when my 3 year old runs into church while I’m preaching and turns off the lights leaving a congregation in the dark, with no sense of consequence or that this would be a problem, it might be time to ask questions. There were so many signs, and I ignored all of it. I feel the guilt from that because we probably lost 6-8 months of early intervention that Elijah could have got. It is better to face reality head-on. It takes more faith to stand in front of the monster you’re facing and stare it down than to ignore it all. There will be endless possibilities for me to face the scary reality head-on – I hope I have the courage to do so.

2. Expectations.

When a parent first hears their child has special needs, the experts talk about a grieving period. What they mean is that the expectations that we had for our kids have shifted. Maybe drastically, maybe slightly, but that change in expectation is tough. My expectation of parenthood didn’t involve IEP meetings, calm down strategies, and the feeling of dread when a kid misses their medication. Expecting the kids to improve and grow is the right kind of expectation. A rigid expectation of how things will all turn out has lead to disappointments. A good expectation is that the next trip to the store with the kids will be better than the last. A bad expectation is there will never be a bad trip to the store ever again. That inevitably leads to upset. I expect my kids to develop, learn, and grow, but my expectations need to grow at their pace, not mine. There’s a possibility that one of the kids will live with us into adulthood, as he stretches and matures, that expectation might stretch too. I want my expectations to be optimistic, growing, and flexible. Focused on growth, not goals. The balance of joy and disappointment shifts when you have this approach.

3. Patience.

Patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is a quality frequently applauded in the Bible. Everyone appreciates it when people are patient with them. But when it’s my turn to be patient, I am terrible. Especially when it’s the kids getting me going. I do not know the journey of other parents, but I can say that often our kids act impulsively without any regard for consequence or what happened the last time they did the thing they are about to do. Sometimes it’s dangerous, other times it’s destructive, maybe it’s just annoying. To protect the guilty I won’t list the crimes here, but I promise there’s been some craziness. It’s in these moments that my patience is noticeably in short supply. I have met some parents whose patience is incredible. I have also realized they have an easier time connecting with their kids and making the situation better and not worse. That’s why I want to do better. Getting frustrated with the kids has never helped. Trust me, I have tried. However, when I’ve kept my head together and been rational, there’s typically been a better outcome. The interesting thing is that even if I’m masking my impatience, the kids still pick up on it. The goal isn’t to hide my annoyance to a very annoying situation but to truly have a loving patience with my children (and I suppose everyone else). I have no doubt that if I improve in this, it will improve just about everything. I’m doing better than I was, but there’s big room for improvement!

There is, of course, a lot more I could say, but these are the things that have stood out to me as I’ve thought about this blog. Definitely look out for the weekly posts, Megan consistently writes amazing stuff. For all the other special needs dads out there, stand strong and face reality, be flexible with your expectations, and pray for your patience to grow.

Always Aware, Always Blue: Part 1

Today, April 2nd is International Autism Awareness Day and April is International Autism Awareness Month. This is the month where we place blue lights on our house, blow bubbles and wear blue in hopes that it makes the world a more inclusive place for our children. We have three beautiful children who are all on the Autism Spectrum. Autism used to be a really sad word in our home. As I have shared in another blog, at the beginning of my kids diagnosis’ all I could see was the challenges that my kids’ would have. I was worried, nobody would see the potential that I could see in my kids. I was worried that people wouldn’t love my kids due to their behaviors. Then the selfish parts of myself worried people would judge me for their behaviors. The truth is that some of these are unfortunately true due to a lack of education. For the most part, I have come across very understanding people and people who believe in and love my kids. Nevertheless, this is why we have Autism Awareness Month, to raise awareness and advocate for more inclusivity

In raising awareness and advocating for inclusivity, I will be having guest bloggers throughout the month of April who have different connections to the Autism Community. Tom and I have truly met some of the most amazing people in our Autism Community. We cannot wait for you to meet them as well.

This week I asked a couple of questions through my social media to gather some questions about autism as well as what people wish others knew about autism. I will do my best to address and share some of these. This will be a two-part blog post. There were many questions to address, however, these seem to be the most frequently asked. Just a reminder, I am a mom and by no means do I pretend to be an expert. I can only speak to my experience as well as what I have researched.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

The diagnosis process was very different for my oldest as compared to my twins. They always hope to diagnose children early so they can receive early intervention. The process for the twins took about a year from the time we started having concerns at 2. They were closely monitored by a Developmental Pediatrician who eventually referred them on to a Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician. My oldest was evaluated by several people who observed him. There was a Neurologist, Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, and a Psychologist in the room. In both evaluations, they looked for speech delays, social delays, physical delays as well as repetitive behaviors and rigidity. They also looked for sensory aversions as well as sensory seeking behaviors. They use the DSM-5 to diagnose and in order to be diagnosed your child has to meet the criteria.

This is a very good question because I have come into contact with a very small population of people who have felt that parents seek out an Autism Diagnosis as an excuse for there bad parenting. It would be very difficult to receive an autism diagnosis for your kid due to bad behavior. The DSM-5 criteria wouldn’t be met simply due to negative behavior. This brings me to the next question.

Temper-tantrums and meltdowns, is there a difference when it comes to Autism?

The answer is yes! My children have both! The difference is the level of control and duration in my experience. There are some behaviors my children can control and others in which they cannot. Various therapies work together to help an individual with autism control the uncontrollable behavior. My youngest son, can have full-on tantrums just because we didn’t get him what he wanted and when he wanted like his neurotypical peers. However, my son can also come home from school after having held himself together all day at school and then come home and one little thing is enough to send him from 0-10 in a matter of seconds. The duration of this meltdown can last from as little as 20 minutes to a couple of hrs. The behaviors that come out can be aggression, throwing objects, not hearing what I am saying. Typically we have to ride these out because, he will not allow anyone to touch him in these moments, talk to him or offer any comfort. This is heartbreaking as a mom. However, it does look like a temper-tantrum but does not look typical for his age and lasts longer than what is typical.

Do all Individuals on the Autism Spectrum have Savants like ‘Rain Man’?

No, every individual on the Autism Spectrum has various strengths and weaknesses. There are individuals who have remarkable abilities regarding memory but not everyone can calculate intense mathematical equations or count cards. However, it is not unusual for individuals with autism to have a great interest that they are experts on. My oldest who is eight can tell you every flag of every country in the world, he is humble enough to believe that Tom and I also know every flag to every country. Moses is a deep intellectual thinker and will stump you with many things that most adults don’t think of. My daughter has an incredible memory and only has to hear a song, book, or movie once before she has it memorized. However, they do not have Savants but are incredibly smart.

By listening and asking questions we can create a more inclusive world. Speaking for myself, I would much rather someone ask me a question about my children to gain understanding then to distance themselves from my child due to a lack of understanding. Please, keep asking questions and listening. Show empathy and kindness even when you are uncomfortable and don’t understand. There are challenges that we all face whether we have a diagnosis or not, it is important however that we are known for who we are and not by our diagnosis. Everyone deserves to be known and not stigmatized. Part two to be posted tomorrow!

Small Victories Mean Big Celebrations

The most important and life-changing lesson my children have taught me is to stop and celebrate the small victories. When my three kids were diagnosed with autism, there were a lot of challenges and hurdles that we knew they would face and that we would face as a family. For a long time, I was overwhelmed every day by the day and its challenges. There are still days like that, where I feel so overwhelmed by life and all its uncertainties.

There are many things are very challenging, when you have children with autism. Going to a restaurant, I better have my running shoes on and bill paid at the beginning. If I want to take all three kids to the store by myself, yeah, that never happens. There are so many stories I can tell you about where it all went wrong, some highly embarrassing, some terrifying, some heartbreaking and some just flat out frustrating. However, I will save those for another time.

Perspective truly is vital to contentment and joy. By no means do I have this down. There are days where I am just sad or overwhelmed by the challenges of life and can’t seem to get myself to see anything good. However, I am learning that there is always something to be grateful for and always something to celebrate. There are so many highs and lows in life. Life can be unpredictable and can really throw difficult things in our way. Even amongst all of it, there are little moments along the way to celebrate. Some days it may be that you chose to get out of bed, or that you have a bed that offers you comfort and rest when it is too hard to get out of bed. When we celebrate the small victories in life, it doesn’t mean denial of your current season or that we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. Acknowledging the small victories gives us hope. Hope is important and vital to survival. Hope will get you through the most difficult of seasons.

When I began to celebrate the small victories in my kids, it was hard not to be grateful. My husband and I are so grateful for the community and team of therapists and educators we have around us. They have seen me on my darkest days and have encouraged me to see the accomplishments and growth my kids have made. These people are superstars in my life and have inspired me in so many ways. If you don’t have people around you that do this I would encourage you to read my last blog. These people are largely responsible for the victories we get to celebrate.

My oldest son, Elijah has known the Pledge of Allegiance by heart for years now and he could be heard around the house saying it and yelling a big ‘Amen!!!’ at the end. He is incredibly smart but doesn’t always see the value of sharing it with others. Recently, Elijah not only recited the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom for the school but also read out the announcements. Elijah saw value in reciting it in front of his peers, this was a victory in our books and was celebrated. Elijah rarely does what you ask just because you ask. Often, things need to incentivized and even then sometimes it just doesn’t happen. A couple of years ago I tried to get Elijah to have school lunches in hopes that maybe he might see his peers eating certain foods and try them himself. It was a fail, he is such a picky eater and there is no incentive big enough to get him to try new foods. This year, however, I decided to just mention to him in passing that if he sees something he wants he has lunch money on his card and he can try it. To be honest I wasn’t really expecting him to do it. He came home very excited to tell me that he had tried a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have never been able to get him to try a PB&J. We celebrated. There was jumping, there were high fives and lots of praise! It may not seem like a big thing but it was a victory that gave me hope that one day maybe we will try to eat vegetables other than pickles. In those moments I could say to myself, he’s been reciting the pledge for years or it was just a PB&J, it wasn’t something healthy. However, it isn’t helpful to my children or me. These are all small victories that will lead to bigger victories and that fills me with hope.

If you are anything like me, you are hard on yourself and your worst critic. At the end of the day when that voice says you didn’t get everything on your list done, you can choose to celebrate what you did get done instead. If you are in a season of heartache, I have been there a few times myself and there were days the pain felt too much and I couldn’t see anything good and honestly sometimes didn’t want to. If that’s you, you will dance again. One moment at a time, one step at a time, you will get there. The victory in these seasons is that you survived another day when you didn’t think you could. For that you are courageous.

Cheerleaders and Critics

Last spring I signed the boys up for a soccer program that they have for children with special needs. The program is great, they teach them soccer skills and then at the last practice they play a game with the parents. The plan originally was for Tom, my husband to go with the boys and Esther and I were going to have some girl time every week. However, Tom ended up having to work, so I had to take the boys every week and Esther had to watch the boys practice.

I thought that Esther would be upset at the thought of not being able to play, but she wasn’t. Instead, she took a self-appointed position as the team cheerleader. She would stand on the side yelling, “give me an A, give me a P, give me an R, give me an E, go Elijah and Moses”. Esther may not have been able to spell or read, but it did not put a damper in her spirit. She was doing ‘cartwheels’ and leg kicks and everything. She could have been jealous that she wasn’t the one playing or she could have called out everything the boys weren’t doing but instead she chose to cheer them on. She wasn’t calling out where they lacked but she was calling out there potential to be superstar soccer players. I love my little girls’ spirit.

If we lived in a perfect world and were surrounded by people who cheered us on, we would truly believe the sky was our limit. We wouldn’t have any inhibitions. We would truly excel in our talents and gifting. However, we do not live in a world where everyone is cheering for us, there will always be critics. It has been said many times and in many different ways, that who we surround ourselves with will determine where we go. Sometimes we can control who we are surrounded by and then sometimes we just simply can’t. We need to identify who’s voices we hear the loudest. Sometimes the line can be a bit blurry of who are critics are and who are cheerleaders are.

One thing we do know about cheerleaders is that they cheer whether their team is winning or losing. It doesn’t matter if their team has a slim chance of bouncing back, cheerleaders call out the best in their team. After-all a cheerleader has seen their team at their best and knows what they are capable of. They know their strengths and they know their weaknesses. However, they are there to cheer on the best in there team.

If you are surrounded by critics, you will only see your shortcomings and you will avoid risk at all costs. After all, risk may lead to failure and failure may reveal your own weaknesses. Your weaknesses aren’t safe with critics. Critics like to focus on other’s weaknesses and rarely get to know your strengths or appreciate your strengths. Listening to critics will evoke fear and you will tend always lean towards the safe choice or stay put. Fear will also cause you to over-analyze your decision-making abilities.

However, cheerleaders will call out the potential that you may not even see in yourself. When you feel like giving up they are the ones reaching out to you and encouraging you, telly you that you’ve got this. Find those people who see the best in you, who will pull you up when you need to be pulled up and who will even push you when you need a bit of a push. Cheerleaders will remind you of your strengths when you feel like you have failed and push you to try again.

There are many seasons where I have felt overwhelmed by critics. One particular season comes to mind where I thought that the people I had surrounded myself with wanted the best for me, that there harsh words and critiques were there to help me. That may have even been there intent but it just left me feeling small, incapable and not enough. I wanted to be teachable and take in all the feedback because I wanted to be a better me. This individual had told me I was too loud, attention-seeking and prideful. So I felt I needed to be quiet, never talk too much or joke around in case it was perceived as attention-seeking and that I needed to fade into the background to become humble. This person also had convinced me that those who cared about me most were not good for me. I had eliminated all the cheerleaders in my life and had believed the very worst about myself.

Once I realized that this person’s voice needed to be removed from life, I made drastic life choices to ensure the voices in my life were positive voices and that they were people who genuinely wanted to see me do well in life. That season of life taught me to be very careful with who you allow to influence you. That season helped me evaluate myself and recognize the areas where I was at risk of being a critic.

Regularly, I ask myself am I a critic or a cheerleader to those around me. I know which one I want to be. Cheering people on will always cost more than being a critic. It takes patience, being supportive, and being there for the long haul. Oh, but when they win, you feel like you win too. Critics don’t plan for people to succeed, they plan for people to fail. Critics hone in on every mistake. We don’t cheer for people because they are perfect but because in spite of not being perfect, people do succeed.

Maybe you don’t feel like you fit into the role of player, critic, or cheerleader. Maybe you have sitting on the bench. I want to be the one to come along you and say it’s time to get up, you got this. You have what it takes. We might even fail, but we are going to fail together until we win! Everyone has there unique part to play. If you need to sit out on the bench for a bit to catch your breath or relax, that’s ok, just don’t stay there. The world needs you and what you have to bring.