Last month was the second anniversary of my son’s diagnosis. At the time, I was tired and stressed, questioning my place at North Dakota State University (home of the Bisons) as a graduate student. I had a full-ride scholarship — but still, how was I to find a daycare to go to class and work? There were multiple times I was told my son could no longer access the daycares available, and that his needs were more than what the daycares we visited could meet. Finally, when the second one in a month told me to get my child medically evaluated, I was told, “Your son has autism and sensory processing disorder.”
I’ll admit that I didn’t quite know what those diagnoses meant in their entirety. I’ll admit the first time I ever Googled “autism” was after my son’s diagnosis. Those are not things I am proud of these days, but they’re the truth. I just didn’t understand. I wasn’t told in terms that made sense to me at the time. I was uneducated and felt so alone as a single parent. I felt like nobody I knew at that time quite knew what I was going through — at least not that I knew of…
The one thing I really struggled with on diagnosis day was the label: autism. I knew the diagnosis didn’t change who my son was on the inside, the compassionate boy I know and love. But I was afraid people would judge him over the label. Would people see my son for who he really is and not for the diagnosis he has? It was the fear of the unknown. It was the fear of people judging him before they really knew him.
The same day my son was diagnosed, we were referred to the ND Autism Center. They took him for a daycare observation day. I chose to go to work while they observed. As I sat at my desk that day, I dreaded talking to you. I dreaded having to tell you my student organization days were over, at least for that time. When I finally mustered up the courage to speak to you in our student organization office, I asked for your privacy. It was there that I finally broke down into tears. As strong as I tried to be through it all, I finally let myself be vulnerable in front of someone. You were the first person I felt comfortable enough to do that in front of. Through the tears, I confided in you the news of the day, the fears of judgment, as well as my fears for my son’s future. I told you I didn’t know if I would remain in school and if I could afford a specialized daycare program. I felt like home was where I was most needed. You sat and listened to me speak without interruption. You let me feel heard.
After all was said and done, you turned to me and said the most impactful words of my life. “You’re both going to be fine. You’re going to be able to do this and remain here in school where you belong. I know you’re scared of how people are going to view him, but they will see your son for who he really is. He will be able to accomplish anything he puts his mind to. The diagnosis just means that he will start getting the extra support that he needs. You want to know how I know all of this? It’s because I’m autistic too.”
I was awestruck. I had been friends with you for months and had never known this about you. You confirmed that despite my fear, we could overcome any challenge that comes our way. Autism isn’t something you can see — it’s different from child to child. You taught me that labels don’t define the child — they can also serve to help. You helped me see I needed to educate myself about ASD and sensory processing disorder (SPD) to fully understand what my child was experiencing and how to help him. You gave me the hope I needed to keep pushing forward.
Here we are two years later, and I am approaching my graduation soon. I will be the first Ph.D. in my family. My son started his first school sport, and he is doing very well. His coach says he just loves his enthusiasm and his eagerness to practice. He is successful in many ways. We both are.
You helped us get here. In all my years of university, the most valuable lesson I have been given was one learned outside of the classroom. It was learned in a small hallway by one of my peers.
I guess what I am trying to say here is thank you for teaching me my most valuable lesson so far as a parent. Thank you for telling me everything was going to be OK. I now know every word you said in that tiny hallway was a deeper truth than I could have ever imagined. Thank you for showing me the strength I had in myself. Thank you for showing me the true strength of the herd.
Sincerely, the fellow Bison,