Well, here we are folks. December has been an eventful month. When Alex was diagnosed with autism several years ago, I discovered a whole new world that was bigger than the “typical” world where I had expected our family would live. A few years into “autism life,” when I would meet with moms of newly diagnosed kiddos, I often used this analogy while chatting together in my kitchen over a cup of tea:
A baby is born and there are all these expectations we have. It’s like everyone is crowded into the kitchen, oohing and ahhing over the new addition, and happily chattering about how wonderful it is to be right here in the kitchen. No one wants to step outside of the kitchen for some odd reason because they firmly believe *everyone* is living right in here.
But if you think about it, deep down everybody knows there is a whole house surrounding that kitchen. It’s just that new parents are afraid to step outside of it. No one really does it on their own, until someone else pushes them out the door into the dining room. And once that happens, once we get pushed through the door, we discover a whole house– essentially a whole new world– outside that comfortable kitchen.
And it feels better to have these other rooms to live in. It’s more comfortable than being crowded into the kitchen with everyone else. But there’s no way to explain that to someone who’s still living in the kitchen because they feel warm & comfortable & safe in there. Someday something will happen in their lives to make them leave that comfortable place and explore their own house, their particular life circumstances. And then they too will discover the whole world outside the kitchen of which they are already a part.
My new friends, and the people who looked to me for advice since I was just a bit farther along on my autism journey than they were, often told me they found that analogy comforting. Well, guess what folks? I’ve got something new to report:
Not only are most people not living in the kitchen, not only is there a whole comfortable house we families with special needs kids have to inhabit– but there are *entire villages* of people, whole communities beyond our homes and what is most familiar!
For the last few years, my family has lived essentially in crisis of one sort or another. We always managed to find the next service, the next step, the new teacher, the better intervention. But at some point, I began to feel sort of lost and my faith wavered. My son’s autism journey escalated to a crisis point where I couldn’t clearly see the next steps. And I got scared and felt alone.
On the other side of that, I recently discovered that what I really needed to do to re-frame our current family reality was simply to go back to the kitchen analogy. I had stepped outside that comfortable room years ago, but this month I walked out of the whole big house. And what I found was a village community safer, kinder and more loving than I could have imagined.
I share my experience with you here in the hopes that if you or someone you love ever needs to leave all that is familiar behind and take a similar leap of faith, you will find comfort knowing others have relocated, re-established themselves & their families, and have found hope in unexpected circumstances.
Day 1: I drive to the clinic to meet Alex’s Dad and transport Alex to his new living place. I feel tears well up as my car automatically navigates to the hospital I’ve visited nearly every day for 6 weeks. I think:
“I hope the next place is good.”
I wonder if we’ve made the right decision. Logically, I know it is the best course of action. I try to keep my emotions in check, but as I pull into the hospital parking lot, I start to sob. I park, grab my phone, and begin calling my “autism network” one by one. No one answers until I reach my sister-in-law, Adrienne.
“Am I a good mom?” I ask, my voice shaking. “I mean, I know I’m a good mother to Hannah, but I don’t know how to do this thing with Alex. I need to know– really truly– am I a good mom for Alex? Am I doing the right thing? This is so hard…”
Without hesitation, Adrienne– who is a supervisor for child protective services two states away and who has seen every family situation imaginable– replies:
“You are the best mother for Alex. You are making the ultimate sacrifice and so is he. You are giving up control to someone else so that Alex can truly get what he needs. It’s not something you want to do, it’s the hardest thing a parent can go through– to let go of your child, to let go of the dream of wanting him at home– but this is the best way to get him the things he needs that will help him. That makes you the best mother. And stronger than you know.”
I hang up the phone and take a breath. A voicemail has come in from Elsie, another mom on a similar journey:
“Alex has a higher power and this is part of his journey. You have dignity & grace to be his Mom. Think of Louise Hay’s message– she wants you to transfer love and healing to him, and that’s what you’re gonna carry: love and healing. Just pass that onto him, because that’s what he needs from his Mom right now. And you have that from the universe because whatever you put out is what you’re gonna get back. You put out the love, you’re gonna get love back. And I love you, I’m here for you. I’m sending you love, healing, warmth, serenity and peace.”
Another breath, I’m as ready as I’ll be. I meet Alex and Daddy. We drive in separate cars to the residential treatment facility. Alex rides with his Dad. Once at the facility, we’re escorted into a small conference room for the official intake. As inevitably happens, Alex wants to roam and Dad goes with him to help him explore and acclimate. I’m left alone with the very sweet social worker, nurse, and various other professionals who drop in to make introductions.
Everyone is nice, they smile and they are patient. They answer my questions. They take the piles of paperwork I’ve collected. They copy insurance cards. They ask many questions and seem pleased to get the information they need. I think:
“This is my baby! I want to tell you everything! He is my life, my heart is breaking, please, please, please hear everything!”
But I try not to talk too much and to only answer what they ask as concisely as I can. I try to trust the process, and to not cry. I fear that if all the intense emotions I’m feeling come flying out, I’ll lessen my credibility somehow and when I really need them to listen, they may not hear what’s important.
Some of the questions are hard:
“If Alex is ever in a situation where he is touched inappropriately, would he tell someone? Of course, we take every precaution to keep all of the residents safe, but this is important information for us to know in case one of the boys may unintentionally cross a boundary.”
I talk about Alex’s expressive language, what he is capable of telling us and the needs he usually does or doesn’t express. I tell the nurse Alex does not usually tell us when he is hurt or hungry, but he will answer direct questions. To the professionals I appear to be coping well. Inside my head, there is a mother on her knees crying and pleading loudly:
“Please, please, please take care of my baby!
…my baby, protect my baby boy…”
Intake finishes. We go to Alex’s new “home” and see his room. As we walk in, for the first time I meet kids exactly like him. Almost like the boys at Alex’s school, but with one difference– all of these energetic, enthusiastic guys are at the same place for essentially the same reason: They have needs that could not be met at home.
Alex’s roommate Anthony is talkative & perceptive like Alex. Another boy David melts my heart with blue eyes & a big hug. Still another, Luke, bounces by telling a staff member about his family. We play with Alex on the playground, we meet the staff members on the unit. I start to feel okay, I think maybe this situation will become okay …
Each person I meet really “gets” these kids.
Day 3: Aubrey, Hannah and I visit Alex for the first time. We hang out together in a special family visit room. Alex is his usual distracted self, I feel a little anxious. Hannah sees a small bouncy ball I included with Alex’s clothes and toys. She cries that it is hers and she wants it now! I try to be calm and understanding, but I am less than patient with her. I think to myself she has rooms full of toys, Alex is living away from home among strangers, let him have the ball for goodness sake! But I know why she protests, and how much she has given up over the years. I explain the importance of sharing some things, and then I keep quiet. Aubrey helps Hannah feel okay.
Day 5: I visit Alex on the evening of his birthday. He is wearing comfy pajamas, his favorite movie “Alvin & the Chipmunks” is playing on the TV in the common room outside his bedroom door. There is a Christmas tree with colored twinkle lights sparkling. I am amazed at how calm I feel. I tell the Treatment Manager who runs the house how reassuring this feeling is. I am grateful.
Day 8: We visit Alex at his classroom and then go with the class to the gym building for their annual Holiday Bazaar. I learn that the facility is active and involved in the community in many different ways and I realize that working together they are able to provide amazing experiences for the kids there, in ways I had never imagined. Their work not only benefits the kids, but benefits many families around them who are living in the land of the typical. My kid is part of a community that educates, empowers & makes a difference. More gratitude.
Day 9: We celebrate Alex’s 11th birthday at his new living place with Grandma and Big Pop. We decorate the play room. Alex is happy to be hosting a party for his new friends. The best part for me is being able to share pizza and cake with all of the kids and staff. I am so grateful Alex is in such a supportive environment.
Day 15: We attend the annual Holiday Show. Alex stands on stage, he participates. My eyes well up as each class sings & performs. No matter what their challenges, each individual kid’s strengths are highlighted. I sit with other mothers who share the same scars as mine, who have the same stories, who are walking just a little bit ahead on the autism journey. They say to me:
“Only two weeks? You’re doing really well!”
They offer their phone numbers, they give hugs as freely as their amazing kids whose smiles can capture hearts as easily as my Alex’s grins. I don’t even know how to tell these parents how much this connection with them means to me. But I suspect they already know. I drive home cautiously optimistic and begin to envision a new year….
… to be continued…