BY KIMBERLEE RUTAN MCAFFERTY
He snuggles in closer, smelling of baby shampoo with a hint of something sweet mixed in. His head still fits perfectly
on my shoulder, warm and precious as we read the “Polar Express” for the millionth wonderful time. As I begin to turn the page that will lead the protagonist to the train, he puts his hand on mine and says, “Mom, religion doesn’t matter to Santa Claus. Everyone who’s good should get a gift.”
Amen to that.
I have no doubt the magic of Santa will always prevail in the McCafferty household, and my boys are both confident they’ve behaved this year and Santa will reward their efforts in December. I know this from Zachary’s coveted words, and equally definitive, from the priceless nod of my non-verbal son Justin’s head when asked if he’s getting presents this year. The fact that both my autistic boys can communicate is a gift in and of itself, one I never take for granted. And yet, if I’m honest, there are so many more gifts autism has brought us.
Ten years ago, if someone had mentioned “autism’s gifts” to me I would have rolled my eyes and probably detailed our daily existence to that individual, an itinerary of Justin’s day replete with insomnia, reflux, aggression, a complete inability to communicate, and many other trying issues that his disorder had bestowed upon all of us at the time. I would definitely have looked heavenward once again seven years ago as we watched our second son Zachary regress, losing his words, his love of life, and quite honestly, the very light from his eyes. Gifts were not forefront in my mind when thinking about the impact autism has had on our family.
Fear and exhaustion were frankly much more present.
But it turns out, years later, so many of the issues that plagued us have resolved themselves through hard work, maturity, and love, and the gifts are here, waiting to be seen like the toys on Rudolph’s island of misfits, hoping to be discovered. I’ve watched both my children begin their lives’ journeys miserable, tired, and seemingly lost in their own worlds where my husband and I could not traverse.
Eleven years after that first diagnosis I’ve, seen two confident, loving and happy boys emerge from what seemed like a prison so long ago, an impenetrable fortress I could not break through to relieve their discomfort. Of course, the fact that they both now revel in their lives is the biggest gift of all.
There are so many other gifts however, all priceless in nature, many of which I would have overlooked, had autism not been present in our lives. Autism has made us closer as a family, has created a teamwork mentality I’m not sure we would have embraced otherwise.
Having two autistic children has given me the gift of educating all we meet about the disorder, to pave the way for understanding and, hopefully, make another family’s experience out in the world a bit easier.
Autism has given me the gift of the community as a second family, with whom I feel an instantaneous camaraderie and closeness I treasure. I’ve been given the gift of learning to revel in even the smallest increments of the boys’ collective progress.
Finally, autism has given me the gift of forcing me to be utterly present when with my sons, making certain I never miss their ebullient smiles, precious eye contact, or generous hugs. Years ago, when all seemed especially bleak in the landscape of both my sons’ lives, a friend touched by autism told me this. No matter how difficult the moment, the hour, or the entire day, at the end of the night, find one moment of joy, and cling to it. I took that advice and built on it, after time finding many moments to be grateful for, enabling me to see that eventually for this family, the gifts of autism outweigh the struggles. My advice to you is to find that instant in time, embrace it and foster it. Help it grow into multiple moments of happiness, and peace. After a decade of strife my sons are safe, productive, happy. They are a gift to the world. They will always be a gift to me.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty is a regular contributor to Exceptional Parent. She is also the author of Raising Autism: Surviving the Early Years, a memoir about parenting her two boys, both of whom have autism. Her new book is available on amazon.com