Acceptance Begins at Home

by Jean Winegardner

We parents of autistic children talk a lot about wanting acceptance for our children. We want teachers, peers, potential employers, strangers, and the world at large to see our kids as the wonderful people they are, deserving of respect and embrace. Sometimes, however, the place where acceptance is lacking the most is at home and in our own hearts.

I remember when I was a new parent and autism was one of the scariest words I knew. I only knew a few things about autism, but I knew enough to worry when my oldest child played with her toy cars by carefully using them to line the truck bed of her little dump truck—and then melting down when they didn’t all fit evenly.

At the time, the possibility of autism seemed like the worst thing that could happen to a family.

Ten years later, I feel so very different. Autism has absolutely changed my family, but I am so grateful for the way we have been shaped by our neurodiversity.

Since those days, nearly everyone in my immediate family has been diagnosed with some sort of neurological difference. That oldest child has ADHD, my youngest child has sensory issues and a healthy dose of quirkiness, and my middle child, Jack, and I are both autistic.

For my family, the fear of autism was far worse than the reality.

I’m not saying that I didn’t worry about Jack when we were first looking at him for autism. The uncertainty of his future scared me. It took me some time to find peace about his differences from his preschool classmates. I cried a lot that first couple of years.

But I laughed a lot too, because that boy was (and is) amazing and hilarious. After all of my fear of the unknown and the stress of learning how to work the special education system started to ebb, it wasn’t actually that much of a leap to acceptance of my child’s autism.

By the time he finally got his diagnosis, I was just relieved to have a word that gave me a direction to look for his community and resources to help him be the best Jack he could be. I couldn’t grieve his diagnosis, because it didn’t do anything to change him. Sure, our early years were stressful, but I can’t remember ever wishing he were different. Because have you met Jack? That kid is awesome.

I know that there are a lot of parents who really, truly love their children and would do anything to help them, but that hate their child’s autism. I know their children feel their love, but I worry that they feel that anger and remorse too.

I understand the fear and the uncertainty, but the river of our children’s lives are going to flow the way they were meant to regardless of how much we as parents try to alter its course. I found that stepping into Jack’s current with him and teaching him from where he swims is so much more productive than trying to make him walk upstream.

I have the greatest hopes for all three of my children. They all have challenges ahead of them, but they will never have to think that I don’t like who they are. They will never have to wonder why I spent years trying to fix them, because I never thought they were broken. I love every part of them (except maybe the whiny parts).

It is impossible to imagine Jack without autism. If he were typical, would he still be so gentle and kindhearted? Would he still find so much joy in the world? Could he still look at life around him with his creative and imaginative worldview? Would he still have his curiosity? His charisma? His intelligence? His charming personality?

I could never be sorry about who Jack is. I don’t believe that there is some other child underneath his autism. Even if there were, I don’t want that child. I want my child.

Ten years ago, I was unable to fathom parenting a child with autism. Now I cannot—and do not want to—fathom my own child without it.