I am autistic. I am 26 years old and grew up in a time where the solution to autism was to be sent to a group home. My mother was often ridiculed by doctors and called a bad parent for not doing so.
When I was about 5 years old she sat me down. I don’t often have faces and people in my memories but this is one memory where I remember her clearly. She said to me “You have autism. We don’t have all the answers but from this moment on you and I are a team. And no matter what I am always going to let you try. I know we will find all the pieces to this puzzle together.” This was long before puzzle pieces were the face of autism, before anyone knew what it was.
This will forever be the most pivotal moment of my childhood. Because even though doctors kept telling me I would never succeed, my mom always had the same answer. “Let her try.” And so I found the strength to try. For every life skill I was told I would never accomplish became a personal challenge. Neurologists told me I would never tie my shoes, ride a bike, or go to college. I took a different road and began my journey of setting out to prove everyone wrong. I have now done all three of those things.
I am not a parent. But what I can give you is a glimpse into my childhood. By now I think everyone is familiar with sensory issues. I would like to discuss the things that worry parents and how I overcame them. Mostly, to ease your minds and let you know that it is okay if your child is playing at the edge of the playground.
The edge of the playground is where you could always find me. Walking in a straight line over and over gave me a sense of centering and attachment to this world. I often feel that I could at any moment float away and I am not fully grounded here. Spinning, jumping, body crashing, and walking in straight lines give me sense of security. It allows me to filter out the rest of the world and become a reset for my mind.
I also craved the edge of the playground because I was able to be alone. For me, I did not seek friendships at first. I am sure that to many, a child may appear lonely always playing by themselves. This was not the case for me. This was a way to have a break from the overload and social interactions going on throughout the day. At home I would line up Polly Pockets in my closet for endless hours by myself. Think of these behaviors as a type of meditation.
But encourage your children to leave the edge of the playground. Yes, that is where we are most comfortable. But the best things and accomplishments in life come from entering uncomfortable and new territory. Because the reality is no matter how much I want to, I cannot live my adult life in solitude successfully. I did not know that as a child. I now have very dear friends that I do not know how I would live without. They even cue me socially. I know the value of friendship. I would have never learned that had I not been shown what friendships had to offer me.
My mom would still allow me to line up Polly Pockets or walk the edge of the playground but she also slowly coaxed me into the center of the playground and taught me all the outside world has to offer. She knew this was challenging and that there would be times of failure. But she also knew that I had to challenge myself to fully know what I was capable of.
One of the first steps my mom took with me was teaching me how to climb the monkey bars. I wanted to do this so that I could take the first step of playing with other children but I did not have the gravitational security to do so. Every day after school she came the playground with me and helped me learn to climb them. My greatest fear was falling. But my mom always encouraged me.
“You will not fall, I am right here.”
Finally, one day she had gained my full trust and she let go. And I climbed the monkey bars on my own for the first time.
My mom continued to do this with every challenge I faced. Letting me know she was ready if I felt I would fall but also teaching me that I needed to try for myself first. If it became too much then we adjusted and we modified. Eventually, just as she let go with the monkey bars, she let go entirely. Now I am able to navigate life on my own advocating for myself, while also still knowing I have my family’s support if I ever fall.
Life is a series of monkey bars. We all face unique challenges but the important thing is we try first. If we try and it is too much then step back and try a different way. I always tried to do each life event the regular way first. It did not always work and there were many times I had to do things differently than typically functioning. But you cannot know if it will unless you give it a shot.
I will forever be grateful to my mom for showing me the rest of the playground. I know there will always be monkey bars in life that I am faced with but I now realize that I have the capability to try. My overall advice to parents out there is that doctors cannot fully know what your child is capable of in this life. All autistics move on the spectrum and there is no way to predict how far each of us will move throughout our lives. The only way to know is to not limit us by assuming certain things and to try.