Editor’s Note: Amy Smith, the author of this story, is the mother of 5-year-old Brendan Smith who has autism. Her son attends kindergarten at Collins Lane Elementary.
April is Autism Awareness Month and its focus is on educating people about how autism affects the nearly 1 million Americans who live with it daily.
There is an old saying among the autism community: “If you have met one person with autism, then you have met one person with autism.”
The reason families understand this quote so well is that every child is different in how their autistic characteristics manifest. There are varied degrees of severity, symptoms and at what age the child is diagnosed. Many families can see there is a difference in their child, but families must rely on the help of professionals to achieve a formal diagnosis.
Some children with ASD are non-verbal or rely on assistive technology devices to speak for them while some children on the spectrum speak far beyond their years at an early age. Despite where a child is on the spectrum, they are capable of learning concepts and living a functional and successful life.
Many children that are diagnosed on the spectrum also suffer from sensory overload. It is typical for a child to go into a grocery store and take in the bright florescent lights, the rainbow of colors that fill the produce section, the smells of baked goods and fresh flowers lingering in the air, the conversations going on around them and the clang of carts in one solitary moment.
Can you imagine having to take all of that in and then feel unaware of how you fit into the scenario?
Many times, I have been that parent. I have seen my child become very upset at the thought of the grocery store. The lights hurt his eyes, the sounds hurt his ears and the smells make him uncomfortable. Still, in the midst of a meltdown, I have to be the one to help my child cope, protect him from criticisms of other shoppers and still get the groceries we need.
To someone who doesn’t know my son has autism, it might look like the tantrum of a spoiled child. That assumption is not reality. I might have had that assumption too, before autism became a reality for me.
When my son was diagnosed, I sought an intensive, early intervention program. It was difficult at first to discover what worked for my son, but once we achieved a successful program, he began making significant gains.
Today, a trip to the grocery store is a basic trip without meltdowns. It took years to overcome the obstacles he faced when he walked into any store. Now, he understands some of his sensory needs and has ways of coping with the anxiety that his sensory overload causes. He is an intelligent, funny, charming and loving child who wants to have friends, and someday he wants to be a doctor.
I am his mother and like any parent, I want the best for him. It is part of my job to ensure he has the tools to be successful. I am proud of the progress he continues to make.
As a parent of child with autism, I want people to understand that children with autism are intelligent and have something to contribute to the world. Parents do not want pity, but we are not opposed to compassion. We want our children to be loved and accepted into a community, like any parent.
This month, if you see a light blue ribbon or a puzzle piece ribbon, please ask about autism. Families wear it for a reason, and we wear it with pride.
We look into our children’s eyes and see hope. We would like for others to do the same.