By Tyann Sheldon Rouw
I asked my twin sons what they wanted for their upcoming birthdays. Isaac didn’t respond. He’s functionally nonverbal and wasn’t interested in using his speech generating device to answer. He was only interested in watching the garage door rise and fall as he examined how the light spread across the floor.
Noah thought for a moment and said, “I don’t need a new atlas. How about shirts? Then we can laugh when we open them.”
Today family will squeeze into our modest home to eat lunch and celebrate another birthday milestone.
Isaac might reluctantly open one present before escaping to play “Wheel of Fortune” on the computer downstairs. It’s a refuge from the sights and sounds and people that overwhelm his sensory system. Some years he resurfaces when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday,” even though he can’t coordinate his body to blow out the candles.
Noah loves the attention and company. Once he’s focused, he opens each present quickly. He barely looks to see what’s inside. Occasionally he will say things like, “Is this all there is?” even though he’s been told repeatedly that those words are rude.
Invariably someone will say, “Can you believe they’re 7 years old?”
My husband and I will answer in unison, “Has it only been seven years?” Then we’ll laugh and point to the bags under our eyes.
It’s been a long road since they were diagnosed with autism five years ago.
Isaac’s behavior was so challenging I was not sure he could remain in our home. He didn’t seem to understand language. He seldom slept. Often he was up for the day at 2:00 a.m. He didn’t go back to sleep. Either my husband or I would supervise him while the other slept. Many nights I prayed that Isaac would find comfort – and that we would – and somehow we all could put one foot in front of the other when the sun rose in the morning.
Noah said a few words, but his language wasn’t functional. His only word was “Daddy,” which was handy when I asked him who won the Miss America pageant last year. “Daddy” was his answer to everything. Most people frightened him – especially strangers — and he cried for hours when his routine was disrupted.
When I took them to a park on a beautiful summer day, they ran in opposite directions – and never to the play equipment. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice the slide or playground equipment at all.
They’ve both come so far.
So have I.
Before my boys were born, I never dreamed I could raise a special needs child or two. It seemed like a demanding job that always felt too big for me.
Kids with autism need to be taught everything. They don’t generally pick up cues from the environment the way others do. Problem solving is difficult, as is language, social interaction, and activities of daily living: eating, toileting, bathing, and dressing.
My boys have learned a lot at speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. They’ve had feeding therapy, early childhood special education preschool, special education classes, and therapeutic horseback riding.
Now I realize my boys have taught me much more than I’ve taught them. Not all of the lessons have been easy. I’ve learned about acceptance, patience, humility, and unconditional love.
I’ve learned not to worry about the person in the store who’s giving me the evil eye when my child is having a meltdown. I’ve learned to advocate for my sons’ needs. I’ve learned I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I’ve learned that the boy who has no speech has a lot to say. I’ve learned that my son who is a walking encyclopedia views the world from a different lens. I’ve learned that getting angry gets me nowhere. I’ve learned how to recognize the little victories that are big victories in our world. I don’t diminish them.
I often wonder what kind of person I may have become had autism not entered my life. I believe I’d be more rested. But would I be shallow or judgmental? Would my new house or car be my biggest concern? Would I be oblivious to life’s simple joys?
Isaac and Noah are my gifts. They have made me a better person and mother.
Today I will stop to reflect upon their growth during the last year, and I’ll celebrate how richly I’ve been blessed. Then I’ll serve up those thoughts with a big piece of birthday cake.
Tyann Sheldon Rouw has been published on Yahoo Parenting, Scary Mommy, The Mighty, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and various newspapers. She blogs at Turn Up the V. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.