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!

Trust and Believe

As I lay here in bed on the eve of my son’s first day of Kindergarten, I am surprisingly comforted by the fact that there are hundreds of other parents sending their kids off to Kindergarten tomorrow as well. Parents who are possibly tossing and turning in their beds, withered by anxiety. Parents who are nursing upset stomachs as they think of all of the “what-ifs” that come with sending a child to Kindergarten. Parents who are pacing all over their homes with lists running through their minds of all the things they need to have ready for tomorrow, all the things they want to say to their children in preparation for this immense milestone, and all the fears they are trying to suppress so they can eventually fall asleep. There are parents who are excited for what this year will bring and parents who are silently celebrating the return of a kid-free home for much of the day after a long, exhausting summer vacation.

To all of these parents, I feel you.

But, to my fellow special needs parents out there….I am feeling everything you are feeling even more deeply.

I feel your absolute gut-wrenching fear for your child because he is going to be in a mainstream school for the first time with maybe a fraction of the support and services he has been receiving up to this point.

I feel your stifling anxiety when thinking about the moments during the day where she may have no 1:1 support and could get overwhelmed trying to navigate the newness on her own. You’re praying all the coping strategies and self-regulation tips she has learned will help her not become utterly overwhelmed.

I feel your nervous excitement because your child has shown so much progress and you feel that he will be just fine….but will it last?

I feel your constant, 24-7 concern for your child because of the possible stares, judgmental whispers, unkind words, feelings of isolation, and downright mistreatment that she may experience from other children who have not quite learned empathy and the importance of acceptance.

I am feeling all of these feelings right alongside you and have been feeling them since the day we got our son’s Autism diagnosis. Everything I have done thus far for my son has been in preparation for what awaits him tomorrow morning, but nothing could have prepared me for the level of fear that has taken hold of me over these last few months as August 26, 2019 approached.

However, tonight I am going to will myself to trust and believe that everything is going to be just fine.

I trust and believe that my Nico is ready for this new adventure.

I trust and believe that he is going to surprise me like he has done multiple times before and thrive in Kindergarten.

I trust and believe that my husband and I have made the best decision to place him in this school because he is ready for new experiences.

I trust and believe that his teachers want him to excel and are going to ensure he does through any means necessary. They will protect and advocate for him everyday.

I trust and believe that he will make friends because he is funny and sweet and empathetic and the kids in his class will see value in having a friend like him.

I trust and believe that although Nico may display unique behaviors, it will encourage his classmates to accept difference as something that makes the world a better place.

I trust and believe that I will eventually stop crying myself to sleep and waking up panicked because I’m worried that Nico will struggle and have more tough days than good. I know his good days will outshine the tough ones.

And I trust and believe that with everyday that passes, Nico is going to be a change agent for his new school. Someone who will help educate others about the wonders of Autism and how fantastic the human brain is. He will show others that being different is not something to shy away from, to judge, or want to dislike, but instead something to embrace, celebrate, and encourage.

I want Nico to walk into his new school tomorrow knowing that he matters, that he will be accepted, that he has something to contribute. And when someone stares a bit too long or turns away when he comes around, I want Nico to always say to himself (and even say it out loud): This is me! and then walk away knowing that being who he is will always be enough and should attract, not repel, others.

So, to my precious son….your mom and dad love you beyond measure. We trust you. We believe in you. You are brave. You are our warrior. You are YOU and YOU GOT THIS!

This video celebrates my Nico and the amazing little boy he is!