One Year Can Make A World of Difference

Today was Nico’s last day of school. He is officially a 2nd grader and we can finally close the door on this challenging, yet thriving school year. It seems surreal to think that Nico literally spent a whole academic year in a virtual learning environment and there were times where I didn’t think any of us were going to survive it, but here we are.

I get to sleep in a little longer tomorrow. Hallelujah!

Now, I know Nico did not learn nearly as much as he needed to because of this virtual landscape and I know he will head into 2nd grade a bit behind. But, today, as I heard Nico shout “I love you” to his classmates over Zoom who were all saying goodbye to him—classmates who have only met my son through a computer screen—I realized that Nico felt so accepted and included in his class that he knew to connect those feelings with love.

Nico always has a way of opening my eyes to things that I would have otherwise missed if I allowed myself to constantly worry about all of his struggles and the experiences he is missing out on. It’s not that I am pessimistic when it comes to Nico; I’m quite the optimist, but I feel that as an Autism mom my natural inclination is to want to eliminate as much struggle from my child’s life as possible. It’s a visceral feeling that can become all-consuming if I let it. And, in doing that, I sometimes overestimate how much of a struggle things really will be for my son.

Autism is just so unpredictable. One minute Nico can be flying high and life can be so smooth and then BAM! out of nowhere a meltdown rushes in and knocks the wind out of all of us and I am right back at the beginning of this journey with Nico, fearing the very worst and not wanting to expose him to anything or anyone else.

We did see a lot more meltdowns this school year, as I predicted we would, because of quarantine, virtual learning, and a lack social interaction, but as I watched Nico sleep this evening I thought about all he achieved and the ripple effect he had on me and so many others.

Here is my Top Ten List in honor of my Nico:

1. Nico learned the Pledge of Allegiance within a few days and recited it perfectly each morning with his class, remotely of course, with such prosody and cadence.

2. Nico can independently write every letter of the alphabet with control and more precision than I have ever seen from him before.

3. Nico was a top reader in his class and answered questions when he was called on by his teacher even though he never stepped foot in her classroom. All of his interactions were via Zoom and yet he sat and participated which was not easy for him to do day in and day out.

4. Nico began to demonstrate feelings of embarrassment and the desire for privacy. This was huge for me because it indicated to me that my son was growing up. He’s not a “baby” anymore.

5. Nico conquered his fear of using the bathroom to take care of all of his business. This one right here was a show-stopper because I really felt it may never come, but it came as a result, I believe, of #4 above. I don’t think he could bare the idea of his parents having to manage his bathroom needs like we do for his baby brother. This one also taught me that Nico truly does everything on his own time. I need to just trust in him to know when it’s time.

6. Nico started interacting and communicating more regularly with his little brother, Max and, in turn, learned how to more effectively communicate what he does not like. I think Nico picked up this new level of communication pretty quickly since his little brother definitely doesn’t know boundaries and could care less that “No, Max, no!” actually means NO! Stop! I’m done playing with you! Cracks me up just thinking about it.

7. Nico made friends with his classmates without ever meeting them in person or stepping foot into the classroom. Somehow these children just knew Nico was someone they wanted to know and be friends with and it made his year…and mine. They would cheer him on and ask where he was when he wasn’t on Zoom, which just melts my heart. I want to thank their teacher for building a culture of acceptance, hug each and every one of them and their parents.

8. Nico encouraged me (and he probably doesn’t even realize it) to make a huge change in my career so that I could continue to be present for his daily milestones, but also show him that his mom will continue to do whatever she needs to in order to give him the best quality of life.

9. Nico grew his skill sets in all of the areas that interest him the most: technology, swimming, dance, reading, and theater (mostly crying on-demand, but he is darn good). I know this child is meant to do great things in this world and I have to nurture these skill sets moving forward so that he can feel comfortable exploring them as he gets older without anxiety and restraint.

10. And, lastly, my sweet boy grew up on me. I don’t know when it happened, but I looked at him this week and I didn’t see a small child anymore. I see a grown boy who is thriving and maturing. Just thinking about it makes me choke up. He’s come so far.

I think sometimes I forget that because he doesn’t always talk to me like a typical 8 year old or interact with me like a typical 8 year old that he is stuck at an age where I need to take constant care of him. This may be true for all parents of their “babies,” but today when I looked at Nico I saw him through new eyes.

He is my sweet, endearing, funny, pensive, acutely aware first born child and he is one year smarter, stronger, cuter, braver, kinder, taller, and…

closer to the point where hopefully he’ll be able to share with me, in his own words, what a difference a year made in his life…through his eyes.

I truly can’t believe what a difference one year makes though. It can feel so sublime and significant and, yet, simultaneously represent just a notch on the timeline of your life. Some years will be stellar and some will just be survived. This year ended up being a mix of both. I’m just so relieved I/he made it through.

So to my cool, new 2nd grader…

You did it, Nico! Your dad and I are so proud of you. We love you beyond measure.

The Power of Friendship

When Nico was diagnosed with Autism, one of my first fears was whether or not he would have friends. I had seen my fair share of children and young adults with Autism as an educator and it broke my heart each time when I would walk into the lunch room and see them eating alone or observe them walking the halls by themselves. I’m sure that some of those students were perfectly content sitting alone. They may have even preferred it and I would tell myself that so as to not needlessly bombard them with unnecessary (and probably embarrassing) attention. But, I couldn’t help but wonder what life had in store for these kids. Would they always traverse through life isolated and separate when they had so much to offer in friendship and love?

Friendship is such a vital part of our lives. None of us can survive this life without at least one friend. Like me, Nico has been beyond blessed with so much family and his first and best friends have been his cousins. My first friends were also my cousins and they truly helped define the best parts of my childhood. To this day, they are on speed text and the first ones with whom I share any milestone or challenge. As I journeyed down my educational path, I learned that best friends weren’t just reserved for blood relatives and the friendships I built during those stages of my life helped me through all of life’s ups and downs. Now, many of those friendships I held dear have migrated to social media as life has changed and shifted, but they remain close to my heart because of the impact they had on me in those moments.

Nico is just beginning his journey into friendship building and for the first few years after his diagnosis I truly believed this journey was going to be fleeting because of his special needs and lack of language. The only comfort I found was that his family was where he found friendship and it would always be unconditional. They would always accept him for who he was. Then when we moved from Chicago to Texas I was stricken with fear all over again because we were leaving the only friends Nico knew. I was scared for myself as well because I, too, was going to have to venture out and find a whole new support system and in a whole new state, mind you. Our family had always been our lifeline and our major friend base.

Aside from our familial friendships, my husband and I found ourselves struggling to keep up our other friendships after Nico was diagnosed because we felt like we could not leave our home, with or without Nico. We always looked forward to the prospect of raising our children alongside our friends’ children, but our everyday normal ended up looking very different than that of our friends and we were limited to what we could do. We reached a place in our friendships where apologizing became the norm because we may have RSVP’d yes to a party, but if Nico was struggling that morning or on the verge of a meltdown we knew he would not survive a party. If we had finally mustered up enough energy to go out to dinner or meet up with friends it never failed that Nico would have a treacherous day and it would send us into a tailspin of stress and exhaustion. This would then cause us to have to cancel plans because all we wanted to do was sleep (and secretly cry in the bathroom) instead.

You learn the true meaning of unconditional friendship when you become a parent, especially a special needs parent. The life you lived pre-kids ceases to exist and any friendships that can survive the “early-parenting sabbatical” are the true and lasting ones; they pick up right where they left off (and with lots of libations)! These friendships are golden because you know you can always count on them to be there no matter what. These friendships are empathetic, forgiving, and fiercely overprotective.

Fast forward two and a half years later to our life in Texas and not only have my husband and I found an amazing community of other Autism families, but these families have become our closest friends. We have built unconditional friendships with these parents. We all “get it” when one of our kids is having a meltdown and a party cancellation must follow. We’re there for each other to celebrate the milestones and there to hold each other for the regressions and plateaus. There is never a worry about anyone showing up to a birthday party because we always show up for each other. I have been forever grateful for the friendships I have forged with these families; it makes me feel so much less alone. Being a special needs parent can be very lonely and isolating if you don’t find others that can relate to what you are going through on the daily.

If you are in need of support, turn to social media. There are so many support groups for Autism. You would be surprised at how powerful a friendship can be even if it’s a virtual one. These sites will provide wonderful supports and resources, as well as reassure you that you are not alone:

1. National Autism Association

2. Autism Speaks

4. MyAutism Team

Having these new friendships has really helped because we have now transitioned into a new world of friendship building with Nico as he has entered elementary school. I was beyond petrified at the beginning of the year that he would stick out like a sore thumb and possibly make zero friends. My vision of having a cool school mom crew to hang out with on the weekends had long dissipated and all I was concerned about was whether or not Nico would find a friend who thought he was as awesome, funny, and sweet as his mom and dad did.

Well, Nico hasn’t just forged one friendship in his Kindergarten class…he has forged several! The students in Nico’s class have demonstrated the absolutely indelible power of friendship. Nico may not be able to tell me their names or share with me all that they did together in school that day, but I know Nico loves being at school because he wakes up happy everyday, excited to go. I have to believe it’s because he can’t wait to see his friends. And, these children are showing Nico what unconditional friendship looks like daily because Nico is not always funny and sweet. Since Nico is still minimally verbal, there are days where he struggles and wants to hit or throw things out of frustration. Sometimes it is directed at his friends, not because he is being malicious, but because he doesn’t have the words to express his disappointment or disapproval. Most children might get upset if another child became physical with them in any sort of way, but not Nico’s friends. They find ways to empathize with him and know that if Nico is displaying these behaviors he is upset about something. They work to find out what is wrong and how they can help.

Did I mention they are six years old??

This first elementary school year for Nico has brought its fair share of triumphs and challenges. I do worry about Nico falling behind academically because of his special needs, but the one saving grace has truly been the friends he has made. I don’t know if Nico will keep all of these friendships throughout his elementary school years. I pray and hope he will retain many and even make some new ones along the way. But what I do know is this…these friendships Nico has built have restored my faith in the power of unconditional friendship and that it isn’t just reserved for adults. It’s alive and thriving in Kindergarten!

Empathy Is Transformational!

Raising a child with Autism requires an immense amount of patience, strength, infinite hope, and an unwavering commitment to spread Autism awareness wherever you go. I have been embodying all of this for quite some time now because I have wanted Nico to know that although his life may be a bit different and sometimes a real struggle, he has someone who is fighting the fight, walking the walk, and feeling all the feels right alongside him. I owe him that and a lot more. Empathizing with my son is like second nature for me. Empathy is something I was taught from an early age and it is something that is truly imprinted on me. It has done me a world of good, fostered amazing friendships, and taught me invaluable lessons.

But, what does it look like and how is it cultivated? Are we born with it? Does everyone naturally know how to empathize? Sadly, no. I have learned that the hard way while being on this journey with my son through the world of Autism, but I am here to tell you that empathy is ALIVE and THRIVING in my son’s Kindergarten classroom! Yes! Children as young as six years old have taken my son under their wings and embraced him for who he is.

While preparing to return to work this past week, after being off with my newborn for over 3 months, I was suffocating under the weight of immense anxiety. However, I was also overcome by immense acts of empathy. Not just for me…I’ll talk about that in a second…but for my son. During Nico’s midterm parent-teacher conference, I learned that the students in his class are excelling in some pretty amazing social-emotional skill sets. They actually “understand” my son and they know that he needs breaks, and that he needs to sit in his special chair while everyone else sits on the floor. When they go outside for recess they cheer for Nico as he comes down the slide because Nico stands at the bottom and cheers for each of them every single time. At lunch, someone is there to help Nico unwrap his straw if he is struggling so that he doesn’t get himself worked up out of frustration. They know he doesn’t have the words to ask for help so they watch for the signs. And when the teacher asks for the class to be silent, they know Nico gets a pass because sometimes “Nico feels better when he is able to talk out loud (scripts).”

When his teacher told me that…when she said that these amazing little angels will correct one another if one dares utter a word about Nico talking…I cried.

These children empathize with Nico’s need to script at times. They may not know why, but they know that that is a part of who Nico is and they don’t even question it. What amazing skill sets to be cultivated so early in life. Nico’s teacher said she has never had a class so in tune with another child’s special needs.

And if that wasn’t enough to make me send gift baskets as a thank you to every one of these students’ parents, I then learned that Nico has a FRIEND! A little girl who he has gravitated to and has genuine interactions with everyday. Nico plays with her, loves to sit next to her, hugs her when he needs some extra support and this little miracle worker understands his needs. To be so young and so intuitive and so empathetic. She tells the teachers when Nico is struggling or when he needs a break. She expresses her concern for him when he is having a tough day or isn’t having “nice hands.”

No wonder my child wakes up every morning with a smile on his face and walks into school with a pep in his step! He knows he belongs!

My ultimate hope for Nico has always been that he would find someone in this world that would accept him for who he is and what he brings to this world. That he could make friends and enjoy another person’s company. I didn’t think it was going to happen so soon, especially with his limited language, but here he is with a special friend who genuinely enjoys spending time with him, learning with and from him. What more could an Autism parent ask for?!

This is a direct result of EMPATHY.

Empathy is transforming Nico’s life and it’s transforming mine too. Being a working mom is tough. Period. But then when you add in weekly overnight travel, a newborn, and a special needs child to the mix it adds a thick layer of guilt, stress, and a secret desire to gamble daily so winning the lottery can keep you at home.

But in preparation for my return to work this week, I have had so many incredible women in my life empathizing with me. Sending me encouraging texts, calling to cheer me on, offering to support me in any way they can so my transition back to work is a seamless one. These acts of empathy made this day infinitely easier.

And what I continue to realize about empathy is that it is so easy to show, it costs nothing, and yet its effects are invaluable and can be felt for miles. Our world is in dire need of empathy right now. We need more people to be kind to one another. Thankfully, Nico’s classmates have set in motion something so incredibly powerful…and they are CHILDREN! Imagine all that they are going to contribute to this world because they have learned empathy at such a young age. It’s one thing to empathize with those who you know and love, but to bestow it upon others simply because it is the right thing to do illustrates the heart of the human condition.

Eventually, Nico is going to start communicating more and when that day comes I hope he uses his voice to advocate for those who need empathy. I want him to know how important it will be to pay forward all the acts of empathy and kindness that were shown to him.

I am beyond thankful and grateful to everyone who empathized with Nico and me this week. These acts of empathy are transforming our lives more than you know and giving this Autism mama a real boost of infinite hope for Nico’s future.

Tonight I raise my glass of wine to all you working mothers out there! We’re surviving and thriving!