Can You Relate?

BY SHELLEY HUHTANEN Last week, I was grateful to be able to share our story with those who could appreciate it. In the military, every family faces some sort of challenge.

Last week, I was able to attend a leadership training session in Kansas. I learned a lot, but I found myself combing the crowd, looking for someone who had a child with autism or knew someone with the disability. In a nutshell, I had no takers. At every opportunity given to me, I would talk about my boys and how my youngest has autism. I would wait for questions or comments such as, “My neighbor has a child with autism. I’m sure it’s hard juggling schedules.”
I didn’t hear comments such as these. Instead, I heard crickets. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
This was a week long course and I needed to rely on my parents to care for my boys, which is a tall order. If my parents were not able to get away and Mark’s parent’s had prior commitments, I
would not be able to go to this class. As many people know who raise special needs children, you can’t just drop your kids off at a friend’s house and say, “Have fun! I’ll be back in a few days!” I don’t know what it’s like to raise children who do not have disabilities. One comment I’ve heard in the past that would never come out of my mouth is, “I’m alone tonight! Both of my children are at sleepovers. What to do?” I’m giggling as I type the word “sleepover” because in my heart, I know my son with autism will never take part in one with a friend.

After realizing how fortunate I was that I could rely on my parents to watch my children for a week, I felt compelled to at least educate people around me on how difficult it is raising a child with special needs in the military. If they didn’t know a family with a special needs child then it was their lucky day, I was going to be the one. Maybe a few months or years down the road, they could meet a family who has similar challenges as mine. Instead of being silent and feeling awkward, they could say, “I met someone with similar challenges.” They might feel comfortable with asking the family questions and taking the time to try and understand.

The last day of the course, we were divided up into smaller groups with a facilitator. The point of the small group discussion was to allow participants to really dive into their strengths and weaknesses, examine them, and find ways to adapt. The people in my small group were caring and sensitive and, due to the wonderful people I had in my group, I felt more compelled to share my story. The time came to talk about my son when the facilitator asked us if there were any challenges with being in the military and moving. I said, “I’m sure all of you are excited about where you’re moving. It’s fun and exciting. But I cringe when it’s the topic of discussion, because I know when I move, my son will regress because he has autism.” I asked the group, “How would you feel if you knew your child would regress? It wasn’t a possibility. It was evident and just a matter of time, because that is what happens when a child with autism makes a
transition.” I heard crickets, but it was different this time. They were listening and I had their undivided attention. I told them that I could prepare as much as humanly possible, but I knew in my heart, there would be something I would miss. I just knew that my son was going to react in a certain way that would leave me speechless and I possibly could be unprepared on how to handle it. I looked at each person directly and said, “I will feel guilt and my husband will feel guilt when we move because we will be witnessing our son’s regression first hand and know that our choice to move caused it.”

As I looked around the room, I reminded myself that our family has done this before and we will get through this move just like we have survived the others. We will work to forgive ourselves for the transition, like we have forgiven ourselves in the past. But it doesn’t get any easier. As
our son grows older, there are new challenges and some challenges remain the same. Last week, I was grateful to be able to share our story with those who could appreciate it. In the military, every family faces some sort of challenge. We need to share, in the hopes of connecting and finding a way to relate to one another.•

Last week, I was grateful to be able to share our story with those who could appreciate it. In
the military, every family faces some sort of challenge. Can You Relate?

Shelley Huhtanen is an Army wife with two children, one with autism, whose husband is currently stationed at Fort Hood, TX. She is an autism advocate and currently the parent liaison for the Academy for Exceptional Learners.

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