Today alone, 68 parents will be told their child has autism. One child will be diagnosed every 20 minutes. This fact makes autism the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States. We can safely bet that we’ll know someone with autism—so let’s equip ourselves with empathy and patience, and a few facts.
Next Stop is a great place to start. Local author and mother, Glen Finland, describes the heart-warming, heart-wrenching experiences she had while raising her third son, David, who was diagnosed with autism and Tourette Syndrome at a young age. Despite the pain, embarrassment or judgment it might cause, she is frank about her experiences.
Finland admits to being largely absent in the childhoods of her other two boys. She expresses frustration about David’s absentmindedness and mourns the lack of warmth and expressions of love and appreciation. Finland also expresses gratitude for her long marriage to Bruce. His maturity, empathy, commitment and kindness helped bolster their marriage; other couples might have divorced from the complicated, heavy weight of raising a child with special needs.
As the mother of three young children myself, none of them with special needs, I nodded as Finland pointed out the obvious—taking care of a child from birth to adulthood is a parent’s job. With a special needs child, those 18 years are jam-packed in a way it’s hard for me to appreciate.
Early on in his childhood, Finland and her husband wonder: What about when David reaches adulthood? How can we help him grow and strengthen his wings so he can gain independence and live a fulfilling, productive, independent life? Those questions are difficult and tricky given David’s needs, but Finland shares the answers, along with lessons learned along the way.
Educating David taught Finland that they “should have kept our son in public school and our money in our wallet as long as possible, because we will need it for what happens next. Because what happens next is the rest of his life.” They looked for and tried several solutions: David attended a life skills school in Florida for two years, then came home. He looked for a group home in which to live, but his own home was still the best place for him. He searched for a job at a time when the government was cutting jobs for differently-abled workers, unsuccessful for nearly a year. The jobs he did end up with (I cheered that one was for my beloved Washington Nationals) required big-hearted individuals willing to be the ones to accommodate David’s needs and personality.
At the same time that Finland helps David grow and use his wings, she realizes his disabilities make him more gullible and unable to read social clues that could easily make him a victim, so she and Bruce argued for limited guardianship over David. They also opened a special needs trust to take care of him should they suddenly pass away. The natural “letting go” of a child, I realize, is infinitely more complicated when that child has special needs.
Finland wrote the book to create a collage of words and memories for her David, and she included her other sons’ views of him, as well as her husband’s. The end result is a loving portrait of a special guy whose family loves him fiercely. And despite the fact that David still frustrates all of them, sometimes on a daily basis, they’ve grown to love him for who he is, rather than resent him for who he is not. That’s the sort of acceptance we all could learn from.
Finland writes that it “seems like every new adventure with David offers us a chance to see the best and worst in people.” I wish for all parents—whether their children have special needs or not—to read Next Stop to learn from her experience with David. With his image in our minds, maybe we can approach the next autistic child and his/her parents with a little more empathy and patience. Knowing a little more of what they might be facing and feeling, we can give that parent and child our best.
Kate Schwarz is a full-time mom and wife living in Great Falls, VA. In addition to being a reader to her three small children, Kate is a writer, distance runner, Crossfitter and blogger of raising kids with books at www.katesbookery.blogspot.com.