How to Raise Happy, Successful Autistic Children

The most successful, happy autistic adults are the ones who were nurtured and loved exactly as they were as children. This means that parents celebrate who they are and do not mourn or chide who they are not. Though you might be having a difficult time processing what autism means, this blog site is a safe place to help you work through it.

While it may be difficult for you to make sense of what autism means for you and your family, and you may even be sad your child isn’t the way you expected, it’s far more important to focus on who they are.

Finding ways to honor and celebrate your child and their unique neurology is the key to bonding and growing as a family. You will be amazed at what you notice in your child once you shift your focus from what they lack to the abundance of who they are.

The worst way to raise an autistic child is to believe that they should progress exactly as a neurotypical child. They’re not the same, but there are similarities.

I will not belabor this post with all of the ways humans might need the same things. Instead, let’s get to it. From years of research, here are the best ways to support autistic children:

1. Successful autistic adults’ sensory needs are believed and met.

If you are not autistic, your sensory profile is probably very different. That’s ok. What’s not ok is denying another’s reality simply because it’s not yours. Sensory needs must be honored to help the child regulate, rather than being preoccupied with how you or others perceive the child’s behavior as either positive or negative. 

This means when it is too loud for your child, hearing protection is offered.

If the environment is too hot or too bright, accommodations are made (like offering cool water, or sunglasses/hat/shade), even if the adult isn’t too hot.

If the child needs a break, the adult allows it instead of forcing the child to endure the torture. It doesn’t matter if it seems silly or unnecessary to you; believe them first and watch your bond deepen and your child thrive.

2. Varying communication styles are tended to and counseled.

Efforts are made to understand what the child is communicating in both words and behaviors, even if they’re not typical.

The adult does not worry so much about their own “expectation” as they do helping the child express themselves. 

Many autistic people are gestalt language processors, which means scripting and echolalia are used to communicate rather than original speech. @bohospeechie is a wonderful expert in this style of communication. Other autistic people struggle to verbally communicate and might need an AAC device or sign language.

The most successful parents of autistic kids understand that all communication is valid, and finding a way to meet a child where they’re at is paramount to developing a loving, stable relationship.

3. Etiquette and other social norms are explicitly taught so as to avoid grave social interactions that often devastate autistic people.

This helps autistic people have positive social interactions, and understand how to navigate neurotypical oddities like asking how people are doing even when neither party really cares about the truth.  Rather than focusing on “manners”, etiquette is explained clearly. The rules and expectations of a community are outlined to the child to help them understand social nuances, rather than blindly break unspoken rules.

4. Interests are encouraged, valued, and never belittled.

This helps autistic people make true bonds and friendships and have a deep sense of self. 

The realization that certain societal metrics like grades and “age appropriate activities” are largely governed by neurotypical people for neurotypical children. Though these were not created with your child in mind, these are the expectations and rules of society.

Efforts must be made to create a unique barometer that celebrates your child’s progress. 

I hope this helps you.

Please follow me on social media @sentationalstims for other supports to help your autistic loved one thrive!

How Should I Tell My Child They’re Autistic?

“How should I tell my child they’re autistic?”

-Many concerned parents

I cannot count how many parents have messaged me about this question. It’s so many that keeping track would depress me.

Some parents approach their child’s neurology almost like “the birds and the bees” talk. It feels weird and awkward. But of course, your child’s neurology is not something that should be awkward or a source of fear or shame. Why is it though? I mean, we would never fear telling a child she was diabetic or epileptic- NOT knowing those things causes more issues. The same is true for autism.

Some parents fear telling their child will limit them in some way; almost like uttering this truth will unleash some kind of power over the child. These parents treat sharing their child’s autism diagnosis  like characters in Harry Potter reacted to the name “Voldemort”. 

This kind of makes sense to me. 

Many parents are scared of what autism really means. They don’t know what to do about it, but they know it’s there. 

To call autism by its name somehow gives it more power, maybe? 

And maybe by not calling it by name, a child won’t be so “autistic-y”.

I say that tongue in cheek- but it baffles me how conflicted parents get about this. 

I told my child when he was about 4 because that’s when I first realized he is perfectly fine the way he is. I wished I had told him sooner.  If you know and your child is much older, please do not fret. But take a moment, read the rest of this post, and then tell them!

I started by explaining stimming because that’s how I noticed my child had a different processing system; it was my clue he might be autistic. I didn’t know what stimming was until an autistic adult shared it with me.

Stimming is how a person physically regulates their body when there is a lot of external input. It might be rocking, hand flapping, echolalia, galloping, etc. It explained so much about my child; everything fell into place after that. 

I realized that my son stims a certain way when it’s too loud. He stims differently when he’s excited about something. He stims another way when he is anxious. My son is mostly verbal, but when he is feeling big feelings, he really struggles to articulate his needs. His stims are not random or arbitrary, they are my clue to assist him when he isn’t verbal.

So to answer the question of how to tell your child they’re autistic I say: start with stimming. 

Explain what stimming is to your child (and any of their siblings). I wrote a book about it called The Case of Sensational Stims and it’s on Amazon now. Demonstrate how you stim (because you probably do), but explain that it’s very important for your autistic child because their brain processes information in a particular way. Their particular way has a name.

Their mind is autistic and those who aren’t autistic are called allistic. We all process information a bit differently. No one type is better or worse, they’re just different and we need to honor everyone’s brain (or neurology).

Boom. You did it!

Then… you keep lines of communication open. 

No, you don’t need to talk about it every day, but make sure you say the word autism. There’s not one thing to be ashamed of. Your child was born with a phenomenal mind.   

Ask your child(ren) what autism means to them. Learn from them. Learn with them, Coach them. And remember, autism presents differently in every person. Stims evolve over time. Some things that used to be hard get easier and vice versa. 

The best way to start is to figure out why it feels so uncomfortable for the parent. It’s usually because they don’t know much. Learn from #acutallyautistic people and buy my book on stimming on Amazon. It’s a great way to get started, if I do say so myself. 😉

Understanding Stimming Means Understanding Autism

If you don’t know what stimming is, you probably don’t understand autism very much. I never really knew what autism was either and I didn’t much care until my child received his diagnosis.

I was so scared about my son’s future after learning he had autism. I had no clue how to actually help him or even make sense of his needs.

What kind of parent doesn’t know how to help their kid?!

Me! I had no clue what to do. But I was that parent! Maybe you are too. That’s why understanding what stimming is matters so much if you want to help your autistic loved one. *Spoiler understanding stimming helps lots of other people, including you!*

Being able to understand stimming takes the fear out of the unknown aspects of autism, at least it did for me.

The Case of Sensational Stims helps parents understand the parts of sensory differences that autistic children don’t have the language to explain.

And it explains stimming so simply, even children understand. It’s on Amazon.

When I learned my child was autistic, I was afraid. I was a first-time parent and was already worried I’m screwing up.

This news sent me over the edge. 

I couldn’t even explain what autism meant. I felt scared and helpless. Autism always seemed like something bad. Words like “suspicious”, “symptoms”, and “red flags” were now being used to describe my child. I was so conflicted. My baby was good. How could he be these bad things?

I didn’t realize the impact of this language until years later. That’s when I wrote this book for you. I don’t want any person to feel the way I felt.

I know now it wasn’t autism that was the problem. It was how much I didn’t know. It was also how poorly autism was explained to me.

Autism was always presented like some lurking, scary monster. It took personalities away. It could come without you ever knowing about it. It was something to be avoided at all costs.

My child was happy and thriving. He’s hilarious. He’s loving. There’s no way it’s autism.

But he responded unlike other kids his age. And his 17-month younger sister. It had nothing to do with my parenting. 

It seemed like no matter what I did, certain things were just different.

If it was very loud he had to get out of the room.

If there were a lot of unexpected changes he cried a lot.

If it was very hot he seemed to overheat.

If it was very cold he didn’t seem to care.

If he got hurt he never cried out. Even when it was clearly painful.

His language was different, but I could understand well enough.

No matter what I did he would always run back and forth. He would flap his hands. He would squish himself beneath the cushions of the couch. 

Some nights he never slept.

Food was often difficult for him and not in a “picky toddler” way. It was like it hurt.

I was concerned and confused. My child was amazing but he was different. 

But when I learned about stimming, all of his behaviors began to make sense. 

I realized what his autism means for my family. 

I was no longer afraid! His sensory differences are autism!

I also realized I stim quite a bit even though I’m not autistic. Most of us do!

Stimming is a sign that a person is managing things like noises, lights, food, learning exciting bits of information, having a big feeling, etc. A person stims with their body. Stimming might look like rocking, hand flapping, repeating a word, galloping, pacing, etc. Most people stim.

When we discover a stim’s purpose, we help people thrive.

That’s what happened for us and it can happen for you too.

Sometimes you need to be a detective to understand a stim’s meaning. 

That’s why the book is called The Case of Sensational Stims

Joey and Elise teach what stimming is. This book will help you understand what stims are and why they’re important.

My child is amazing just the way he is. His autism is an important part of who he is. We don’t need to fear autism. We don’t need to overcome it. 

We embrace who he is entirely.  Including his autistic mind.

Understanding stimming allowed us to do that. 

You’re here because you want to support your autistic loved one. Maybe you don’t know where to start. This book is for you.

This book:

  • Explains autism in a children’s story
  • Models how to support disabled people
  • Includes a glossary of important terms
  • Will help you support the autistic person in your life
  • Is a great place to start learning

Autism and Standard Pediatric Development

“Life is not linear. When you follow your own true north you create new opportunities, meet different people, have different experiences and create a different life.” -Ken Robinson
Autism usually doesn’t follow typical pediatric development and this is usually why parents are so alarmed at the possibility of an autism diagnosis. 

The autistic child is a-typical. They are the minority neurological type which means their way of processing the world falls outside the norm of neurological processing.

Autistic children tend to not develop typically, which is usually how parents are tipped off that their child is autisitc in the first place. 

When children fall outside of the standard development time frame of speaking, writing, walking, etc, parents are fearful (unless of course the milestone is met early, in which case their child is a genius). The fear of autism is largely rooted in ignorance and the way many medical professionals describe autism. They say things like “red flags” and “treating autism” and “suspect a neurological disorder” and other such turns of phrase that can scare an uninformed parent witless. 

Doctors are usually amazing, but the average pediatrician do not know much about autism save a few hours of (likely) outdated instruction from a textbook unless they have a personal relationship to an autistic person or took time out of their busy life to learn on their own. 

Development and growth of a child, especially an autistic one, should not be compared to that of a neurotypical child. But developmental milestones are based on the standard and anything that falls outside of the standard progression is almost always the concern.

I am not a medical doctor, so please do not use this for medical advice. My page is a starting point to get people’s mindset shifted. This exists to help people who care to reframe their thinking about neurodiversity.

This page is to help anyone who knows autistic people but doesn’t know what autism really means. Better questions to ask if your child falls outside typical developmental milestones might be:

Is my child learning?

Are they growing?

What do I know about autism?

Is my child distressed often over things that aren’t a big deal to me? Figure out what you know and why you think what you do! 

Usually parents notice sensory differences that prevent a child from interacting with his/her environment, which can prevent growth. And when this happens a parent will say “I don’t understand” but what this usually means is: “I liked this thing when I was their age”, or “other children love this”, or “I was told this is the right way and my kid isn’t falling in line”, or “this isn’t making them happy and it doesn’t make sense”, or “other kids are already doing this but my kid is not”.

The parents who struggle the most with the possibility of an autism diagnosis tend to be the ones who are unwilling to adjust their perspectives.
A struggling parent usually leads to a child that struggles.

An autistic child is a unique individual with their own needs. Figure out what they are. Once you meet their sensory needs and your child is regulated, watch them blossom. Enjoy your child for who they are, not who you imagined they would be.

Please like and share this post with anyone who might benefit.

Follow @sensationalstims on Instagram for daily tips and support!

Could My Child Be Autistic?

If you’re on this page, you’re either wondering if your child is autistic or has just been diagnosed. This page is here because when my child was first diagnosed and I was so fearful of what the “A” word meant for him and my family and our futures, I scoured the internet and library looking for answers. I put them all here for you. 

This blog is to help you understand autistic people better so you can help them thrive in a world that wasn’t designed for them. It’s to help you possibly prevent mistakes I made early on so that you don’t unintentionally harm your child. And mainly, this blog is to help anyone who knows an autistic person and genuinely wants to include them and make the world safer. 

First, breathe. Relax. You know that baby you wanted and hoped for and loved? They’re still there. You just paid such close attention you realized they process information differently than neurotypical people. Your child isn’t broken! You noticed their needs and processing differences. You’re a great parent for doing that! Even if you didn’t do it right away, that is ok. 

You probably noticed because their sensory processing is markedly different from your life experience and you began to wonder why. 

Perhaps the sensory world your child is exposed to is stressful, or exciting, or overwhelming, or something else. Again: you noticed! You didn’t just say “Oh stop being so dramatic!”

Or maybe you did, but you realized some things, no matter what, cause issues for your child and are impacting his/her daily life. Whether they’re autistic or not, you’re probably here because you know there is something different. 

These processing differences may be signs of autism, but if so, your child isn’t broken. This page is to explain what and how accommodations help a neurodivergent person thrive. We use appropriate terminology, unlearn harmful stereotypes and outdated terminology and practices, and evolve so that our loved one can be a happy, fulfilled person. Heck, you may even learn a bit about your own processing system or others. 

I am so glad you are here!

What are the Signs of Autism?

Are loud noises, bright lights, extreme hot or cold, strong smells, textures an extreme sensory experience for your child? Does he or she deeply enjoy or fear or melt down in these sensory experiences and it’s not like a neurotypical child? 

Does he or she love to get pressure (like a big squeeze or being in a tight space) or perhaps loathe hugs? 

Does he or she have unusual facial expressions for the situation (maybe doesn’t look excited when there’s a big surprise or perhaps appears overly emotional for a basic situation)?

Does he or she have language delays or quite exceptional at language for their age?

Does he or she have the ability to focus on one thing for an exceptional amount of time without getting bored or perhaps watch and rewatch certain scenes or shows for an amount longer than what you’ve done?

Does the person display struggles with knowing appropriate body distance between others in a social situation?

These are all indicators that your child might be autistic and if at all possible, a formal diagnosis is important and very helpful. Notice how these indicators were not referred to as a “red flag” or “a warning”. A diagnosis is helpful, but do not confuse autism with a life threatening illness. 

Autism is a processing difference, much like the difference between two computer types like a Mac and an IBM. Even though these computers can both do things, certain programs that work on one won’t work on another. Their interface is different. Perhaps you have a preference for one type or another. Obviously this is not a personal computer and I sincerely hope you won’t take your child back to the hospital because you wanted a Dell and not a Mac. Because the truth is, if your loved one is autistic, they were born that way. And you don’t need to mourn. It’s just different than what you thought. 

Think of all the things you loved about your baby. Think of all the ways in which they demonstrate their love for life. 

Imagine if the person or people who raised you thought, “if only they weren’t this way. I wish they were how I imagined they would be instead.”  Ouch. That would hurt. Maybe some of us reading have had that experience.

Hoping a child would “overcome” the way they were born is a terrible way to live and treat another. This page is to find ways to celebrate who your child is and help them thrive.

Autism Acceptance Begins with Autism Awareness: Stimming

John Steinbeck once said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” How true that statement still is.

Today we discuss autism acceptance. Society often looks at but doesn’t actually understand what autism actually is. I suspect this is because everyone has heard of autism but few can actually explain what it means. This is a problem that this post is designed to ameliorate.

Today I share with you how I came to authentically understand the beauty of neurodiversity.

I hope this piece helps you be an effective ally for any neurodiverse person.

Right now in America, 1 in 5 autistic teens will be stopped and questioned by police before age 21 for suspicious activity. People with disabilities, including autism, are five times more likely to be jailed than those without disabilities. This is a problem that you should care about.

“But what if I don’t know anyone who is autistic?”, you may ask.

I understand that stance because I once had a similar view. Today, I have a big favor to ask: read this like the person you love most in the world was recently diagnosed as autistic.

Today, 1 in 54 people are autistic. Statistically, you’ll know someone who is autistic and it might not look like what you think it should. Because as I noted earlier, most people are familiar with the word, many could not explain what it means, what it looks like, why it happens, or what supports are needed to help people on the spectrum thrive.

The truth is I would not have made this effort if it were not for the sake of my own child who was diagnosed about 6 years ago. I also know I am typical in this way; I don’t generally care until I see how it affects me.

Accepting and harnessing the power of neurodiversity will help solve a lot of society’s problems.  I’ll tell you more about that in another post, but today I need to talk about something more pressing: the safety of autistic people

Before I begin, I must note that I struggle to critique people in positions of power because I know at the end of the day, we are all doing the best we can. I am not anti-police, anti-medicine, anti-teachers, anti-psychologists- I am not anti-anyone. But I am unapologetically pro-safety, especially when it comes to my own child. Lots of people are aware of autism but it’s very obvious many do not accept autism. We need acceptance so parents can help their children thrive, so doctors can authentically support their patients, teachers help empower their students, and law enforcement do a more effective job when working with autistic people.

We need not just autism awareness, but autism acceptance. You cannot accept what you don’t understand, so the point of this post is to help us understand autism a bit better, nothing more, and nothing less.

Autism accetpance would have helped the Utah officers who shot 13-year-old Linden Cameron eleven times. Eleven. Times. I wasn’t there when Linden was shot eleven times, but I bet this 13-year old was stimming in public.

Why was this 13-year-old was shot eleven times? More likely than not, officers didn’t know what they were looking at and felt threatened because of their ignorance. Stimming can seem scary. Especially if you hear lots of sounds and noises and don’t know these are simply a very important way some people need to regulate their senses. I hope you can understand why parents like me, who are also parents of Linden, would want people in positions of power to genuinely understand the autism spectrum.

It’s the same reason Elijah McClain, a young black man who “looked sketchy” (that is an actual quote from an officer involved), was ultimately was killed through events orchestrated by law enforcement. It happened because of Elijah’s unusual appearance.

If we just accept that getting riddled with bullets is simply a part of life, we are doomed. It’s not normal, so don’t act like it. You can be outraged that this happened and still want to work with police so that this never happens again. And by the way, this doesn’t just happen with police. Abuse by parents, caretakers, educators, random people also happen daily.

But of the most pressing importance is that people in positions of power are stressed out when they see neurodiverse people regulate their senses in public (aka stim). A major reason for the stress – which manifests in fear- is because these powerful people are uninformed/miseducated. So let’s inform people properly so that everyone can interpret what they see correctly and help everyone thrive. But you can’t be informed if you judge stimming to be something to be “cured” or deem it rude and something to suppress.

Stimming can look like rocking back and forth, flapping hands, making noises. My son often stims by galloping back and forth and making grunting or squealing noises. The purpose of stimming is to work through a sensory or stimulating experience. That’s what my book The Case of Sensational Stims is about. It is now available on Amazon.

Stimming is a common behavior of many people, especially autistic people. It is often confused for “antisocial” or “suspicious” behavior that needs to be stopped. When adult autistic people stim, it is often interpreted as a person on drugs, which might be one reason why they are more likely to be apprehended by law enforcement.

My own child tends to stim more when he is anxious or excited. He often takes a second to stop or respond if he needs to answer a question, and I can clearly see how someone like him could get in trouble by the police. Depending on the intensity and nature of the stim, it is difficult for him to immediately stop or listen to a verbal command. I wrote The Case of Sensational Stims to address stimming. I did not want my son to have the same fate as Linden or Elijah. That’s the real, selfish reason I wrote this book.

But on a more positive note, it’s a happy book that celebrates stimming for what it is: a way to regulate one’s sensory experience and needs. Special sensory needs are nothing to be ashamed of. They simply need to be understood.

I also don’t believe in the concept that there are “other people’s children”. Linden and Elijah deserved safety. My son will be one of the most vulnerable in society because he is not in the majority class of neurotypical. People in incredible positions of power like the officers who shot Linden did the opposite of creating a safe environment. I don’t think they intentionally set out to harm an autistic child. They didn’t know what they were looking at. We have an education problem that can be fixed. But please, do not waste your time defending these officers. To do so would be to normalize shooting children. That’s lunacy. If you feel the strong urge to do that, this is not the place for you.

I wrote this post and my children’s book to fill the gaping, dangerous abyss that exists because people in positions of power do not understand some basic things that are critically important for the safety of neurodiverse people.

To be an effective advocate I needed to do the painful unlearning of some serious misperceptions, just as I am asking others to do. The Case of Sensational Stims, a children’s book I wrote to educate all of society about the importance of stimming is the result of my unlearning. It’s founded in my new education from resources written by autistic people as well as from my time spent in a classroom and learning about my child’s and my own neurodiversity.

My son’s “mysterious” needs are actually very relatable when I took the time to just listen to those who had similar needs. Typical behaviors of autistic children often begin with a question rooted in dismay (e.g. “why is he lining up his trucks!?”, or “why does she cry when I give her a bath!?”, “why does he keep saying the same words over and over!?”) and these same observations are often problematized by clinicians. Most of this unusual behavior is not harmful, but it certainly is different. And obviously, some stimming can be harmful if a person is banging their head against a wall or picking themselves until they bleed. My son often would bite hard things like bed posts and banisters. Something about the pressure on his teeth felt really good, but I feared he would only have nubs for teeth and all of my wood surfaces would have bite marks. We eventually learned about chewlery, got him a few options, and behold! His teeth are safe and so is my furniture! It was also very encouraging to know that this was a common need and that there were stimming tools to help my child with his unique sensory needs.

This realization took many months of agonizing over what I was doing wrong to make him want to bite hard surfaces. The answer was nothing! His sensory needs had nothing to do with our parenting. Relief!

But many well-meaning people try to “teach” their child how to stop regulating themselves if it is not socially acceptable. Instead of encouraging others to repress their stims, we need to discover what the root of the stim is and if necessary, help replace with healthy, safe behaviors. Stimming is an important means of regulation and supressing it causes burnout and meltdowns.

Before I knew better, I pathologized stimming. “He can’t keep moving around while we are at a restaurant!”, I would proclaim. I viewed my son’s behaviors like a tumor growing on his body, but if I am really honest, this was mainly because I knew others were judging his behavior and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. When I changed where I obtained my information, I gained a newfound perspective that empowered me to become a better parent to my child and teacher of neurodiverse students. I quit caring about judgement because I had clues about why he was behaving certain ways.

I realize now that all forms of behavior from all people, both neurodiverse and neurotypical, are important forms of communication. My son’s “unusual” behaviors serve a very meaningful purpose. For the first time, I saw beauty and wonder at his behavior like most parents of young neurotypical children do (instead of the chronic anxiety and dread I previously experienced when I saw him stim). And certain behaviors like running back and forth incessantly- one of his stims that led me to the path of diagnosis- was an indicator that he was regulating himself due to environmental stress. I was finally able to see it for what it was (for him, this was due to loud noise that hurt his ears). I now could support him appropriately (we use ear plugs/ defenders, or sometimes we just leave if it’s too loud). It was a miraculous yet simple discovery. I didn’t have to judge his behavior nor worry how others would feel about my child “running amuck” in a restaurant when he was really just soothing himself.

Getting information from the right sources is critical. Everything seemed to “fit together” when autism was explained to me by autistic adults (but no, for the record I don’t use the puzzle piece to symbolize autism and here’s why). I no longer hoped my son would “learn better” or “be different”. There was nothing to mourn; he just needed a specific kind of support that I knew nothing about. Everything came into focus, but I wasted critical formative years on a clinical approach to autism. If this post can prevent one parent from the agony or one child from the misery, my effort here will not have been wasted.

My transformational understanding is not overly optimistic nor does it discredit the real challenges and concerns that accompany those with special needs. But caregivers, whenever an “expert” pathologizes an unusual or undesired behavior or says it’s a manipulative, conscious decision made by your neurodiverse child, I tell you without hesitation seek a different advisor: your “expert” is a hack.

Advocating effectively is difficult. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the final destination of total inclusion and societal harmony. I also know I make mistakes even though I’m trying my best. I’m sure some reader will be offended by something I’ve written here and inform me what a piece of trash I am because of the way I worded something. I’m fully anticipating it and ready to do better once I know better (also I will leave room for the possibility that sometimes keyboard crusaders can be wrong).

If we want a healthy, thriving, conscious society, we need to call things by their proper names and take time to genuinely learn about what we don’t understand. Just because you can “see” something, as Steinbeck noted, does not mean you actually understand what you are looking at.

At the very least, we need to believe people -all people- when they share their experiences. And if you haven’t made yourself uncomfortable by getting to know the person –not the topic– maybe that’s where you should first begin. It’s important to support where we can, and genuinely ask questions with the intent to understand. It takes time to look, see, and interpret. You might have to unlearn some things. That’s ok. This courageous decision is an investment of your precious energy. I can promise you though, the reward is worth it. 

If you would like to pre-order a copy of The Case of Sensational Stims you can do so here until May 1, 2021. After that it will be available on Amazon in May. 

Special Handshake

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*Disclaimer- I wrote this in 2019 but got the courage to make it public in 2021. Progress!*

I wish there was a special handshake for parents and allies of special needs kids. Something subtle, but noticeable that shows, “I understand what I am witnessing and I am cool with it, and you. I come as a friend.” It would need to be something that is appropriate in all cultures, so it could work on an international scale. Something inviting, like the Star Trek Vulcan salute, or a wink or something. It would really make our lives a lot easier.

This post is a chronicle of a social excursion for me, a parent of an autistic child. I write it to commiserate with other special needs parents, and perhaps help others understand (especially teachers and voters) why articles like an entire graduating class giving a silent ovation for a man with autism, matter. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at headlines like that, I definitely get it. I used to be of a similar mindset. I mean, inclusion is cool, but that isn’t how the world works, right? How in the world is not clapping for one kid a big deal? And why should we not clap? Everything is much better than it used to be. This kind of stuff is going too far. What’s next? Who cares?

Also, this is not written because I feel bad for my son or need to identify with being a “special needs parent” to feel special myself. I don’t. He’s perfect just as he is. I simply and firmly believe that there is no such thing as “other people’s kids”. We belong to each other.

I want to try to explain why you should care, but it’s a nuanced answer that is best explained with a recent, actual outing. Though we’ve come extraordinarily far, the bar set before things like the Americans with Disabilities Act was set extremely low. If you want to learn more about our country and the world’s relationship with special needs people, please read this incredible book. But today is just a brief insight into one family’s daily life, continue on.

Yesterday we went to the library to return some books when we unexpectedly arrived at the exact same start time of the reptile show. Reptiles are a favorite of my kids, but especially for my son who is on the autism spectrum. It’s been my experience that autism is generally misunderstood for a variety of reasons, but one main reason is that it presents so differently in each autistic person. For my kid, one volume and types of noises, textures, and lights often cause sensory overload for him. This is so not just for autistic people but for many others who have any kind of sensory sensitivity or processing disorder.

Since it was a Thursday afternoon, I felt like it was even better because the place surely wouldn’t be that crowded, making it simpler for my child to succeed in this setting with fewer sensory stimuli.

Except for today, the room was packed.

I took a deep breath. While I am thrilled that a public library was bursting at the seams midweek, I am still very weary of how my son will respond in crowded settings. I am not quite as on edge as last year, when he entered a general education kindergarten class. I worried extensively about elopement and social trauma, but it went about as well as it could. Life is starting to get a little easier.

It’s a tricky thing to be a parent of an autistic child. There’s a unique paradox that only the parents seem to know: on one hand we are so proud of our brave, resilient child, but also so fearful of the inevitable cruelty that will cross our child’s path. We all cope with this differently, but I find myself on daily alert for brutality towards my child. I also remind myself that everything, even cruelty, is a learning experience. I still get nervous when we attend social events, but am not deeply anxious anymore. This is not just because I understand that if I only look for cruelty, that is what I will find, but also because he practices a lot with trained professionals like speech therapists and occupational therapists outside of the normal school day.

Most kids sat on the floor of the retile show and parents sat in the back. The presenter was pretty funny, and made jokes throughout as he educated kids and parents.

Though nervous to let him be on the floor with his neurotypical sister but I decided, “I’ve got to learn to let him do this stuff, it’s the only way he will learn.”

The first half of the show he figuratively hit it out of the park- I couldn’t believe how well he did sitting on his bottom, listening and raising his hand. “Just like a regular kid”, I thought proudly.

Someone else arrived partway through the show. A beautiful little girl, maybe about 5 or 6, who walked right through the crowd and up front to the reptile presenter. She showed no concern for the others around her. The presenter frequently had to ask her, in front of everyone, to sit down, to stop touching his reptile containers or the reptiles themselves. She walked around touching other kids’ heads near the end of the show.

I don’t know this child, but I’ve seen this kind of behavior before. My son is built with a motor that prevents him from being able to stay seated very long. He has never finished a meal without getting up multiple times. Sometimes he gets lost in his thoughts and forgets what he is supposed to be doing. His compulsive need to touch interesting things make for some very awkward apologies when I explain to the middle-aged woman standing in line why my kid put his hand up her shirt. Because of my experience, I realized the way this little girl was behaving was not that of a naughty child, it was of a person who has special needs. Without raising a child like mine, I know I would have judged this mother to be negligent and this child to be willfully disobedient. In fact, even with my personal experience, I began to wonder why the mom didn’t just grab her kid and hold on to her after the fourth or fifth warning by the presenter. This was social suicide for her kid, and frankly, a bit disruptive.

The mom stayed in the back and watched this happen. I must give kudos to the presenter, because he had every right to ask the mother take her “disobedient” kid out. He didn’t do that, but I could understand how he probably wanted to. I wonder how many times this mother and child got dirty looks and judgmental statements hurled at them.

I couldn’t help but wonder if she knew she could get help to allow her daughter a better life experience. Maybe she did know and this is just what it looks like right now. Maybe she is in total denial? No, I saw how this little girl was dressed and groomed; this is a devoted, engaged mother who does understand society. But when I looked at the mom, she didn’t look disappointed in her daughter. She saw everything her child was doing, and didn’t spend her energy attempting to look disappointed to please the people she knew were looking at her, like I usually do. I was equally impressed by her, and ashamed of myself for moments earlier mentally congratulating my child for appearing “regular”.

I was also reminded of another thought I had only moments earlier about my child and wondered if she had the same thought about hers: “I’ve got to learn to let him do this stuff, it’s the only way he will learn.” Maybe that’s where this mother was, too. If so, she had way more grit than I have. I would have pulled the plug on the social outing way sooner.

We have come a long way from the old days of locking up children with special needs, or attempting to beat their “bad” behavior out of them. It was not that long ago where society as a whole believed children could be born defective, and though we usually didn’t murder them, we found it socially acceptable to lock them up in facilities that would halt anyone else’s “progress” by being slowed down by another. If you do not believe me about our history with people with special needs, please read In a Different Key. We still have a long ways to go before we can say we are a totally inclusive society, and even though it doesn’t always feel like it, our culture has made tremendous strides in a positive direction.

This child’s behavior was really hard to watch; it’s tempting to remove her from the situation. But each time we remove someone with special needs from the group, we prevent social progress because we prevent inclusion. At the reptile show, her awkward interjections made us go a bit more slowly, but there was a lot of learning happening. No, not just for this one child, but for the entire group, though I am not sure if the entire group knew. We were learning not just about reptiles, but also about patience, compassion, and empathy. As a teacher, I now think about how often we stop learn “in the moment” learning because it’s awkward and feels super slow and off-task. But I realize now how important slowing down is. It is no waste- it’s a valuable investment.

Deep down, and I am ashamed to admit this, I was a little relieved that it wasn’t my kid this time. This behavior is what my six year old’s social outings used to frequently look like, though he still does socially unacceptable things. However, for the first time in a long time, I got to be the objective onlooker and I noticed this child didn’t hurt anyone. She responded to the presenter each time. It was awkward and slowed us down, but we all still enjoyed the show, and she got to be a part of the group. There were lots of awkward, cringe-worthy moments, but it all worked out.

One interesting fact: to date, nobody has died of an awkward situation.

Sometimes I wish I could just go places with a big, light up billboard right over my head that said, “My son is autistic, that’s why”. I would turn it on whenever that cringe-worthy thing happened. Like when he raised his hand to go up and hold the python with a group of kids. I noticed he put his hands in his pockets, which was probably because he really wanted to hold up his shirt and bite it (but I told him earlier during the show he cannot do that and have told him this what feels like millions of times). I was proud of him for finding something else to do with his hands, but then the presenter told him to get his hands out to hold the snake, he wouldn’t do it. We made eye contact, and I gestured for him to put out his hands. Reluctantly, he took out his hands. He held up the end of the snake with glee, but I know he was mitigating the desire to squeal, flap his hands, and probably bite something because he was so elated. Though it took him a bit longer, he responded to the request. His progress makes me proud and breaks my heart. He has to do this every single day. And also, why can’t he just flap his hands? Who cares?!

My little boy loves to make jokes and he knew that this presenter was very funny. When his time was over, the presenter told the kids to sit down. He wanted to be silly with the reptile expert, but struggles to know when and where this is appropriate. After a few failed attempts to make the presenter giggle, he finally took his seat. At least he wasn’t doing what the little girl was doing, which was getting up again and attempting to touch his basket containing a lizard. I believe the distraction helped people not judge my kid so harshly for doing “weird” things.

After the show, we went to the children’s reading area where I ran into a respected administrator in my school district. He was there with his four perfectly behaved children. I introduced him to my kids, my neurotypical daughter said “hello”. My neurodiverse kid reached out to shake his hand, then told him he doesn’t shake hands, then offered “knuckles”, then shook his hand anyway, then told him to do knuckles, then he closed his hand over the administrator’s hand, then wandered to the back of the reading room.

*cringe*

I wish I had that light up billboard right then. But awhile ago I decided to no longer explain to people that my child was on the autism spectrum whenever something like this happened because: 1. I don’t think many people actually know what that explanation means and 2. I know that he notices EVERYTHING, even things cannot be seen. When I act disappointed in the way he is, I am sending him a powerful message that who he is isn’t right or good. I know I get a lot wrong, but I’ll be damned if my kid gets this message from his mother. That’s what advertisements and social media are for. Also, my kid loves to make jokes. This greeting, in hindsight, was actually pretty funny. Why can’t I just celebrate that in the moment?

We finally went to the back of the children room where the mother with her little girl were reading. The mom was struggling to get her to hold onto a book and look at it, something my son still struggles with, too. I noticed the mom spoke to her in Spanish, and the little girl answered in English. I was impressed by their bilingual exchange. I wanted to go say hello to the mother, but I didn’t know how to do it and wondered if she was fluent in English. I knew some Spanish, but if I was going to connect, I feared my Spanish skills wouldn’t get the job done (this is why we need a special handshake!!!).

I wanted her to know I understood the behaviors I was witnessing and that I thought her little girl was great. I tried to make eye contact to at least offer a smile, but it seemed the mother either didn’t notice me, or didn’t want to even go there, which I totally understand. This mom would have no way of knowing if I was friend or foe. I’ve been chastised by a perfect stranger for “neglecting” my child who was behaving in a socially inappropriate way. I’ll never forget it and would never want someone to experience that either. I suspect this mother has had this happen to her more than a few times.

Social outings are extremely exhausting for me even now with how much progress we have made. I know they are exhausting for my son too, and usually he goes to his room and lays down with his animals when he is done.

Children with special needs like my kid try so hard every single day, and succeed often. And they fail sometimes, too. Because they are children and learning. Because they have special needs. Because they are human beings. We push children with disabilities way harder than typical children. If I were my son I would hate to always have to make behavioral adjustments and mask who I am because society as a whole will fundamentally misunderstand me.

But how do I change this reality? This is the paradox of raising a neurodiverse child: you know they are brilliant and awesome exactly as they are, but they do need to respond in a socially appropriate way to the world around them if they ever want to thrive and have a chance at independence. There needs to be a way to explain briefly to people things like sensory overloads so people quit judging the wrong darn thing. Behaviors that are demonstrating a sensory overload need support not moral judgement. The worst part is that the ignorant onlooker seems to be the ultimate factor in determining if a child like mine is worthy of inclusion. This judgement is why autistic people are more likely to be apprehended by law enforcement, even when not breaking the law. People often do not know what autism actually looks like in regular life and the amount of trauma it inflicts on innocent people is one of the most despicable things I can think of. This fact is why you see autism awareness stuff EVERYWHERE; parents like me are scared. And we’re tired. And we are dependent on you to help our kids (and our autistic kids who become autistic adults, too!). And often, we parents aren’t even the autistic people! Can you imagine how they must feel?

I wish people could also consider what happens before the odd behavior, or at the very least what the function of the behavior is before they determine a person to be “bad”, or “weird”, or “naughty”. Right now, this is not considered to be relevant in the general population. Until that kind of thoughtfulness is pervasive in our society, kids like mine will live on the fringes. Until that day of sincere daily inclusion comes, I will keep writing to try to make the world a better place through education.

On a more basic level, I wish we had a special handshake or signal for the day to day activities to help families move through the world of parenting a child with special needs. Something that says, “I get it!”. It would help so much.

Any ideas?