“Have you thought about joining a parent group?”
That question made me want to hide in my closet. It had only been a few weeks since our son was diagnosed with autism, and so many things were changing. We were meeting with countless doctors, teachers, and therapists. Although there was a wealth of support available, most of the information I was getting about autism was coming from late night internet searches. To say the least, the results were not exactly comforting.
A parent group? The thought of sitting in a room with strangers and talking about a subject that could bring me from calm to emotional in a heartbeat, was, well, scary. I would be vulnerable. I usually welcome change with strength and courage, but this was different. My head was trying to understand what was happening and my heart was so worried. I felt alone.
Despite my insecurity, I wanted to learn more about autism, and the group provided a teacher that would watch kids for free. How could I resist?
There were about seven or eight other parents in the room. The leader asked us to introduce ourselves and describe our family. As the conversation worked it’s way around the table, I helped myself to a warm drink and took a deep breath, rehearsing what I would say in my head. My heartbeat was drowning out my rehearsal as all of the eyes in the room turned to me. “Katie, married, three-year-old son recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and a baby that just turned one.” There. I did it. I sat and listened to the other parents. I was surprised that many of them shared similar experiences and had kids that were in my son’s new preschool class.
After a few weeks of attending the group, my hesitation slowly transformed into anticipation. I was encouraged to write down questions and bring them along to our gatherings. I enjoyed listening and talking to professionals and parents that could relate to what my son, and my family, were experiencing. I was learning the facts from specialists that were filled with suggestions and tips. As a group we learned strategies, became inspired and supported one another on our new adventure. For the first time in a long time, I did not feel alone.
When I think back to those days of sitting at tables with strangers that became friends, I remember the impact of our conversations. We talked about sharing what was happening with family and friends and how to create a network of support. Because of the encouragement from my group members, my family signed up for a fundraising walk. We welcomed donations and told people that if they wanted, they could come walk beside us. I really thought it would be just the four of us. I still fight back tears when I see pictures from that event. Over fifty people wearing bright blue shirts with my son’s name written across the front. Balloons. Thousands of dollars donated in his name for research and education. We were no longer mourning the life we thought we had, we were celebrating the life we were living.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by external changes, I was feeling the movement of change from within. I wasn’t afraid of people finding out that my family was somehow different. I still worried, and there were still many unanswered questions, but the confidence I once had about being a mom that understood her kids had returned. When sitting at the table during meetings, I had ideas to contribute and thoughts to share. Stories that made us laugh so hard, we cried. And stories that made us cry so hard, that we had to laugh. It changed me. It changed all of us.
It has been two years since that fearful first group session. As parents, we adapt and learn skills and strategies that work for our family. For us, joining a parent group was a great place start. As time passed, I learned there are many other helpful programs offered in our community. My husband and I took a parenting class. At church, we found a group for parents of kids with special needs, one-on-one support for our son during services, and free respite events for him, and his little brother! There are countless programs for sports, music, and camps. There are movies and plays that minimize sensory stimulation. We even attended an event at the Water Park of America created just for families like us! As we engaged in the autism community, we found our strength and shared our courage. Because together, we are not alone.