This was not our first time at the rodeo. I was a single mom with a tenacious 4-year-old. He was tall, dark and handsome and came along with two of his own. We were divorcées, cautiously optimistic that true love was still alive and well somewhere beyond our pasts. He didn’t tell me at first that his son was autistic. In fact, now I understand why he made that face when I said, “Oh, you have a son too? Maybe Austin and my son can play at the pool together this summer.”
It took a few dates for him to open up about Austin and his diagnosis—the fact that he was nonverbal. At that time, I knew nothing about the challenges of autism. I thought it was an added bonus that this man had a child with special needs, what a strong father he was and how fun it would be to blend our families.
It has been three years, we live together, and now we have a child of our own. Our brood has grown to four, ranging from teen to teether. Despite my idealistic presumptions, it has been anything but easy to blend. Here are five lessons the process of blending a family with special needs has taught me, and we are all better because of it:
1. It Is ‘Cute’…for a Little While
At first, I imagined myself to be the new hero of Austin’s life. I would swoop in as super stepmom and speed up the process of learning and cognition. Like Mary Poppins with my bag of tricks no one ever tried, we were going to grow every moment of our journey with autism. I was wrong. This is my stepson’s journey, and we are here to guide and support him. Just like I cannot inherently change, I can only guide and support my son. I needed to let go of my notions that I could make everything great all the time and accept him for where he was at. Only then could we slowly move forward at his pace, not mine.
2. We Are a Team
We may be the Bad News Bears. We often have to leave parties early, pay for broken items in the store, and get strange looks when playing at the park, but we are a team. We are a unit, and we are all looking out for each other. My teenage stepdaughter can run like the wind when her brother breaks away in an anxious sprint. My son can sit and piece together a puzzle with his stepbrother without words being spoken, and understand when a piece gets flung at his head. Our baby can sleep through his loud and often unpredictable outbursts. My partner and I have to divide and conquer to keep everyone calm and collected when overstimulation causes a massive meltdown. We look out for each other, and we have autism to thank for that. We are proud to be different. We have strength and resiliency in our unique numbers.
3. I Come Last
This one was hard. Here is the man I love, and we are all together on a weekend, and it is bedtime for the kids and I’m ready to snuggle and chitchat. But wait, he has to attend to his child every waking moment, and when the moments are not waking, my partner is sleeping somewhere in Austin’s vicinity to assure his safety throughout the night. The other children need baths and their own bedtime routines and one of us is always attending to another. I want a break to go to the store or meet a friend, but I have to take the other children with me because autism takes up your mind, your body, and your time as a parent and the other children need attention too. I need to understand that the beauty and strength of the man I love is best utilized when I support him with his son, rather than vying for his attention. My support makes our relationship flourish in those times when we actually are alone.
4. This Is a Long Road
I had to stop expecting quick fixes. I had to realize that in this relationship, if we are going to work, I have to commit to the unknown. We do not know how my stepson will be five or ten years down the line. And if I put myself in his father’s shoes, that has to be quite worrisome. We do not know if it is going to be a good day or an overstimulated day where making it out the door without a meltdown is our biggest success. I had to place my feet firmly on the ground and accept that this is a long-term commitment not only to the man I love, but also to his child, no matter where that takes us. We also needed to educate our other children on their commitment to their brother, that as time goes forward, our family would need to commit to stand firm for Austin—each person playing a key role in his protection and support.
5. We Teach Each Other
Blending any family is hard; everyone comes with a little baggage. But when special needs are involved, we can all learn to see the world through a different lens, through Austin’s lens. Austin teaches us not only to see, but to sense. He teaches us to be alert, brave and kind in the face of judgment. I am so blessed to know we all benefit from the way he sees the world.
Autism has taught me so much about the world we live in, let alone this family whom I love. It puts all the hard truths of relationships to the test. Will we be patient? Will we sacrifice? Will we stand up for each other? Will we continue to love in the midst of struggle? Special needs put this to the test, and our love has grown all thanks to the way this little boy has taught us to see the world.