I've been reading on the blogs that it's Autism Awareness Month.
Actually, that's a lie. I haven't done much "reading" at all. I've learned that it's Autism Awareness Month by reading blog titles and scanning blog copy, because honestly, I haven't felt like I could handle any more autism awareness lately. Around here, it's felt like autism awareness year. And the truth is that this year, for the first time, I have often felt painfully aware of autism. It's been a year of struggle, of challenge, of two steps forward/one step back, of one step forward/two steps back. A year of stumbles, of trials, of risks, of unknowing. So, in the same way that last summer felt like the right time for inactivism, this month has felt like the right time for unawareness. And so, no, I haven't watched Autism: The Musical. I didn't see any of what was on CNN. I haven't taped, I haven't read, I haven't looked, I haven't heard.
Despite that, though, I accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker in a Child Psychology class at the college this week. The professor asked me to speak a little about parenting a child with special needs, and then to take questions from the class. I decided not to do much preparation. I am, at my core, an educator, and I decided that if these students were really going to learn about my parenting experience, then they needed to have the unedited story - not pre-packaged, not beautifully wrapped, just open, honest Q & A. I had a few notes with me, but mostly, I just brought along my courage.
I arrived at the classroom after most of the students were there, and as they settled in I looked around for familiar faces. There were a few students I've taught before, a few I knew from other arenas of my work at the college, and a lot whose faces looked familiar, but whose names I didn't know. There wasn't anyone with whom I'd ever had a conversation about Bud.
I started the presentation with an invitation: "I want this to be helpful to you," I said. "I want to answer the questions you have, whatever they are. So, I want you to know this: I am not easily offended. I understand that some of your questions might touch on sensitive areas and you might be worried about phrasing them the wrong way. Please, ask the questions you have with the words you can think of, and trust me that it will be okay."
And they did.
I gave a fairly brief introduction, walked them through Bud's early development and diagnosis, his education and intervention, and the current state of the state. Then I opened the floor to questions, and hands flew up all around the room: What were my thoughts about inclusion? Had I ever looked into the gluten-free diet? Could I tell them more about Bud's anxiety related to thunderstorms and what those episodes were like? Did his anxiety spill over into any other areas? What were my hopes and fears for Bud's future? Had I planned on having other children, was Bud's autism a deciding factor in not having them, and did I have any sadness or regret related to that? What has been the most difficult part of Bud's school experience? Did Bud's use of echolalia make me nervous about exposing him to age-appropriate media? What did I do to try to get Bud engaged with peers? How did I make decisions about medication? How did I deal with Bud's acute sleeplessness? How did I maintain my sanity? And more, more, more.
I gave it to them straight and unedited, completely unsure about how they'd react. As I talked, I watched their faces - interested, engaged, encouraging me to give them more, to expand, to dig deeper. I watched for looks of horror when I described the hard times, but I saw none. I saw some flashes of sympathy. I saw some looks of recognition. And mostly, I saw the expressions on their faces soften and change, as one by one, person by person, they listened to my stories and fell in love with my son. None of it was white-washed; they got the unadulterated truth. But they were able to hear it all and zero in on the part that mattered: the part that told them that in parenting Bud, I get more than I give; the part that told them how lucky I am to be this child's mom.
When I left the classroom, I was positively buoyant. When I'm slogging through the day-to-day, especially when I'm slogging through the hard day-to-day, it can be easy to lose perspective. I am always aware of the good that's there, of course, but I start to lose sight of the ratio - I can't quite tell if in the bigger picture, the bad has somehow started outweighing the good. I start losing track of which things are universal and which are situational, which are the norm and which the exception, which the foundation and which the one-off. But somehow, through 75 minutes with a room full of eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds, the clarity was restored and I exited the classroom with something I didn't have when I entered: awareness.
Autism awareness? Maybe. Self awareness, for sure. Life awareness, I think. Whatever it is, it's good. It's making me take deeper breaths. It's making me believe that spring is actually coming - metaphorically and literally. I'm still not ready to break out the next round of autism memoirs or check to see if TiVo has been taping any good documentaries. I'll still be skimming the "Autism Awareness Month" posts for a while. But I've rounded a corner. I've turned a page. And I think good things are coming.