God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
(Reinhold Neibuhr, 1943)
The inability to accept the things which we cannot change in life can be one of the greatest obstacles to inner peace. When people experience loss in their lives, they typically go through what well known psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross referred to as the stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When my youngest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, I suffered a loss. While Ben was still physically with me, the hopes and dreams I had for his future were suddenly taken from me. Although I did not realize it at the time, in retrospect I can see how I went through a text book case of the stages of grieving.
Denial: At first, I ignored the signs. Sure, Ben preferred to be on his own, as opposed to the company of other people, but he was half British. “The Brits are known for their aloofness,” I assured myself.
He was still not talking at the age of three. “But is not unusual for boys to be late in acquiring language skills,” I told my family.
I noticed that he preferred to line up his toy trucks as opposed to play with them in the conventional way. “But that’s probably just because he doesn’t have play mates his own age,” I reasoned with my friends.
Anger: The first person to suggest that Ben might have autism was his father, a pediatrician. I was outraged! “Are you nuts?” I yelled. “I can’t believe you would think that our beautiful son is autistic. It is absolutely ridiculous. You obviously know nothing about autism.” I am not exactly sure if I spoke those words to him directly, but I do know that I would go on wild rants whenever I thought about him making this “outrageous” diagnosis!
Bargaining: When Ben’s speech-language therapist later suggested that we get him tested for autism, it really scared me. Was it actually possible that my baby boy could be autistic? Even the word autism scared me. I bargained with God. “Please Dear Lord, don’t let him have autism. Let him be deaf or have a learning disability; anything but autism! Those kids are so cold and unloving.”
(Then God winked at me and replied, “Florence, do I have a lesson in store for you!”)
Depression: Even though more and more professionals were suggesting that I should have Ben tested for autism, I still clung on to the hope that he was just a late bloomer. Then one evening, while chatting with a colleague of mine, I casually mentioned that Ben’s therapist had suggested autism. I waited for his re-assurance that I had nothing to worry about, but instead, he gave a response that literally knocked the wind out of me. “I can see that,” he said.
I gasped for air. My voice cracked, “What the hell do you see that I don’t see, because I DON’T SEE IT!” Then with all of the kindness that he could muster, he went on to point out the red flags that I had been ignoring: Ben’s lack of social interactions; his poor eye contact; not responding when his name was called; his fascination with letters and numbers; and his tip-toe walking. I had a great deal of respect for my colleague, and when he said it, I knew it had to be true.
I started to cry and didn’t stop for three whole days. Even months after his official diagnosis, the slightest thing could set me off. I remember, for example, one evening when my son Donovan, then 11 years old, came home after being out to a movie with his friends. He was very proud to tell me that he had put his arm around a girl he liked, who sat next to him at the movie. I burst into tears. All I could think was that Ben would probably never experience the excitement of having his first girlfriend. He might never even have a real friend. Because of this dreaded diagnosis, his whole life would be a series of obstacles, struggles and challenges. Instead of a normal childhood, full of fun and play, Ben’s pre-school years would consist of work. He would have to undergo intensive therapy to learn how to talk; therapy to learn how to play; therapy to learn how to recognize emotions; therapy to learn how to dress himself. All of those things that “normal” children learn by watching and doing, would be hard work for Ben. As a mother, it broke my heart that he would be robbed of a carefree childhood.
Acceptance: Finally, after months of intense sadness and feelings of loss, came acceptance. It came to me one night as I was praying my nightly prayer for my three children to be safe, healthy, and happy. It suddenly dawned on me that God was still answering my prayers. Ben was safe, he was healthy, and he was happy. Being given the label of autism did not make him cold or unloving. Ben was still the same sweet, kind, loving, smart, adorable little boy that he was before his diagnosis. I knew that there would be challenges ahead for both of us, but we would face these challenges together. I finally accepted his autism and only then was I at peace.
In my work as an educational psychologist, I often see parents of autistic children who get stuck in one of these stages, and don’t come to a peaceful resolution of acceptance. They frantically search for ways to FIX their child….diet, supplements, new therapies, or even stem cell transplants. While some of these techniques may provide benefits, there is no cure for autism. As a society, we need to understand and accept autism for what it is. Remember, God does not make mistakes!
(This post is a chapter from my new book, “Soul Steps: 52 Ways to Reconnect with Spirit”, co-authored with Veronica Connors and Natalie Finlay. Due for release in June of this year).