The day my son was diagnosed autistic I broke my heart. He was almost four, had only just started walking, had no spoken language and he was very developmentally delayed. I wanted to do everything possible to ‘make him better.’ I wanted to change it all.
16 months later, in a different clinic, I took my daughter to be tested for autism too. I sat solemnly while the paediatrician and specialist speech therapist listed all the reasons they felt she too met the criteria for diagnosis. I didn’t cry but I did feel concerned about her future. I wanted to change the thought that she might struggle.
Five years later I sat in another room, in another city, with another speech therapist and a psychologist as my husband received his diagnosis. This time I wanted to change his past, prevent the years of misunderstanding and bullying and the subsequent depression it left him with.
It hasn’t been easy for me to accept and embrace the fact that, all except myself, my entire immediate family are all autistic. I can see looking back how I consumed myself with the need to help them communicate, help them socialise, and help them adapt to even the simplest of change. I was tying myself in knots and exhausting myself. In my attempt to help them I was inadvertently telling them they had to change.
Now it IS good to empower autistic people with the right tools and support to succeed in life. It IS right to encourage, help and teach them. But what we mustn’t do is force them to change the very being of who they are.
As my children grow and shine in their different ways, and my husband processes his own diagnosis, I am doing my best to help them embrace and celebrate their own uniqueness. I came across this simple post in a Facebook group posted by an autistic adult friend of mine called Joseph. His three words are what I want to say to my autistic loved ones.
‘Don’t ever change.’
Isaac won’t ever really understand what that means. His significant learning disabilities give him such a pure and simple outlook on life. While his care needs might be high the core things that bring him joy and pleasure are quite basic. He loves his food, his same bedtime stories every night, lifts (elevators), his bath routine, looking at photographs on my phone and soft play. I took him to soft play recently and watched with pride and overwhelming love as he flapped contentedly to himself unaware of anyone around him. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, he lives each day like it’s the best day ever and he loves deeply. Why would I want to change any of that? He’s amazing exactly the way he is.
Naomi is at an age and developmental stage where she is much more aware of her differences. While her peers attend clubs and groups, play popular video games and play outside she is still happy to line up little plastic toys and immerse herself in her own make believe world. Her literal interpretation of language brings me so much joy as she, quite rightly, reminds me to say what I mean and not use ‘funny phrases’. Her thoughts on life astound me and her ability to empathise and care are incredible. Yes, she admits herself, that she finds some things harder than others but then she’s the first to tell me ‘everyone is different and we are all good at different things.’. She knows she has autism and she isn’t ashamed of it. She’s exactly who she was meant to be and any issues regarding that are for me to work through, not her. Would I really have wanted her any other way? She’s wonderful exactly as she is.
My husband’s autism looks very different to the children’s. He has spent his life trying to change and adapt, fit in, be included and be accepted. The world has tried to change him for over sixty years and as a result he felt ashamed, different, and stupid. Seeing the mental and physical scars he now lives with as a result of this makes me even more determined that our children need to feel loved, accepted and wanted for exactly who they are.
Therapies have their place. Strategies to support have their place. Teaching and practicing social skills have their place.
However we also need to teach our autistic loved ones that they are accepted, loved and amazing exactly as they are.
They need to hear the simple truth of these three words:
‘Don’t ever change’