Journeying from Disbelief to Acceptance
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Annie’s Story. She is 33.
Thinking about a time when. . .
I wasn’t filled with anxiety . . .
I didn’t routinely compare my son to other children his age . . .
I used to take photos for family scrapbooks . . .
I wasn’t constantly looking for “red flags” . . .
we were a carefree family.
Thinking about how. . .
he enjoys watching Peppa Pig on TV . . .
he laughs when his father swings him through the air . . .
he loves to make animal sounds. . .
he likes to draw with sidewalk chalk . . .
he wraps his hands in my hair when we cuddle . . .
I’m thinking about my son Griffin Noah, a sweet, quiet, two year old who has autism.
Mine was the proverbial small town “growing up.” Everybody knew everybody in my rural community. I’ve known my husband since we were kids. We were high school sweethearts—our first date was at a homecoming dance. Eleven years later, we married. We had two children, one who shares his middle name with his great-great-great-grandfather. We had planned a wonderful life for our family. Then we received the news . . .
That news was broken to me during Griffin’s 15-month wellness visit with his pediatrician. While my husband and I noticed that his development was somewhat delayed, we weren’t horribly concerned. Sure, he was developing slowly, but he would catch up to his peers . . .
The completed development questionnaire in the pediatrician’s hands suggested a different story. Griffin’s inability to engage in pretend play, his ritualistic behaviors, difficulties communicating, and problems connecting with others . . . all of these, we learned, were signs of autism.
Disbelief. Fear. Denial. Anger. Uncertainty. Guilt. It’s amazing the places that your heart and head can go when grappling with such news.
We were overwhelmed. We didn’t know anything about autism, didn’t know anyone whose children had autism.
As we desperately trolled the internet for information, our understanding increased, but so did our fears. We imagined the worst. Our hopes for Griffin’s future were dashed. We only shared the news with a few people, not sure whether the doctor was correct, not willing to believe that his pronouncement could be true. We kept scrutinizing Griffin’s behaviors and comparing them to the list of “red flags,” asking ourselves, “Is this autism or is this being a two year old?” We held out hope when symptoms weren’t obvious or appeared mild. When asked, a few family members and friends admitted that they had concerns about Griffin that they hadn’t expressed to us prior to the doctor’s visit. I felt guilty. They saw problems that I felt I, as Griffin’s mother, should have seen. But I didn’t. I stopped asking because I had a really hard time handling it.
During this time, I also experienced an overwhelming desire to do something to try to “fix” Griffin’s problems. We continued our relentless search for information and advice, made appointments with other physicians to examine Griffin, arranged for him to receive therapy, even put our family on a gluten and casein free gluten and casein free gluten- and casein-free diet. We felt an incredible need to exert some degree of control over our situation.
Now I think I’ve reached a level of acceptance.
My son has autism.
In some ways, my days are not terribly unlike those experienced by other mothers: dropping the kids off at the childcare center, going to the gym, taking family bike rides, spending quiet time with my husband, sitting down to family dinners. But always the specter of autism haunts us . . .
Three times a week, a therapist visits our home to work with Griffin. The parks we visit must be fenced so he doesn’t run off. We put a piece of bright tape across the end of our driveway to signal Griffin to stop so he won’t run into the street. Public excursions make me anxious because people might notice Griffin is different and judge him for it.
Perhaps our most heart-breaking challenge? Helping our four-year-old daughter understand why her little brother is not like other two year olds. I choke up when she says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Griffy, but I still love him.”
I’m also grateful. I’m grateful that Griffin’s autism is mild and that he is making progress in his therapy sessions. As difficult as it is to adjust to an autistic child, our family does not face the same challenges as those whose children have more severe disabilities. While Griffin has difficulty communicating with others and likes to do things certain ways, he doesn’t get stuck performing behaviors, unable to break free. And, we can definitely see improvements in his ability to socialize and to adapt to unfamiliar environments.
Our family and friends have been very supportive throughout this process. For this, I also am grateful. Our parents spend time caring for both children and help Griffin learn to interact and feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations. Friends regularly ask about him and listen to my stories and concerns. I’ve also developed an informal network with other mothers who have children with autism. This is perhaps the most valuable therapy for me. These are the people who really know what it’s like. They understand what I am feeling and thinking, the challenges I face, because they have been there themselves.
As the mother of a child with autism, I’m definitely in a better place now, even though I still have many things to learn and challenges to face. Now, I can see down the road and be more optimistic. Ten years from now, I hope to see Griffin in school, interacting with his peers, and learning. I hope he’ll be in a regular classroom instead of attending special education classes. Most of all, I hope that Griffin understands his disorder and is okay with it.
Watch the reading of Annie’s story.
As told to Beth Messner by Annie Timmerman.
Beth Messner is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Ball State University. She teaches courses related to persuasion and rhetoric and studies the discourse of those whose voices are traditionally silenced.
If you connected with Annie’s story, you can reach her at email@example.com.
To hear more stories like Annie’s, be sure to check out the Facing Autism in Muncie Monologues on November 2nd at Civic Theatre.