My eldest child is 12 years older than her siblings. So, I had time to get comfortable with many different stages of parenting before my younger children were even born. I remember being relieved during my second pregnancy that I generally knew what to expect during delivery and could handle a wiggly baby and the 50 different ways to fasten pajamas. I only needed a little refresher on milestones, mostly because I had no clue what normal child development looked like. See, my eldest child has autism and I had spent her life learning to adjust to a new normal and throw out the expectations of a typical childhood.
And here’s the thing: There are definitely ways in which having a child with autism has made parenting her four younger siblings more complicated. However, there are countless ways parenting a child with special needs has helped me be a better mom to her siblings.
My autistic daughter taught me that experts don’t always know everything. From her early childhood I learned to trust my momma-gut and question the many doctors, teachers, and therapists we saw. Over time, I became more confident in my instincts and that has definitely carried over to my younger children. The degree on a specialist’s wall does not mean that she knows the child I spend every single day with better than I do.
I remember going to a meeting where I knew I would be getting some disappointing results, most likely, and another mom told me to remember that “no matter what they say, your child is the same person she was before you walked into that meeting.” I’ve used this mantra as a coping mechanism through many a challenging appointment or meeting for any of my children. Deep down they are the same child you know and love. No matter what they’ve done or what they are unable to do, they are the same child you’ve always known.
There was a point in my daughter’s years of tests that I began to glaze over as they read me results. They would report that she was 4 years-old but functioning as a 14-month-old or that she was “significantly behind her peers in socialization.” I would get emotional and upset and then there would be my daughter, dreamily singing to whatever object she was carrying or reciting the names of every single person in her elementary school yearbook, as happy as could be. I decided that my ultimate goal was her happiness rather than her test scores and that has flowed over to her siblings as well. Of course, I want them to succeed in life but my version of success has much more to do with happiness than it used to.
As you raise a child with special needs you slowly adjust to how life will be different. I learned to cope with the fact that she couldn’t tie her own shoes. Then I made peace with knowing that driving a car may not be in her future. I accepted that college wouldn’t be an option, either. Finding a path that utilizes my daughter’s strengths and helps her feel like she is contributing to society has become my goal over time. I see the future ahead with her siblings and I feel the same way. We need people to occupy all different kinds of jobs in the world. If they want to go to medical school I’ll be thrilled but if they struggle through high school and can’t imagine continuing on to a college degree I’ll be equally as happy with their career of choice.
I spent years (and years and years) waiting for my daughter to take one step or pick up a piece of food with her thumb and forefinger. I cheered when she said “cheese” and “hot dog” rather than “mommy” because at least she was speaking. Nothing has come easy to my eldest child; she has to work so hard for things that the rest of us take for granted. She has given me a 21-year-long lesson in appreciating the small things and that is the thing I am most thankful to her for.
Through her many years of ups and downs she has changed me as a person and as a parent. There are so many “big” things that are now insignificant and so many small things that I celebrate with all of my children. I don’t take any of their accomplishments for granted because I know how hard some kids have to work to achieve things. I’m lucky to be the mom to each of my children but I’m forever grateful for the lessons my eldest child has taught me about what’s truly important in life.