My son, Walker, is autistic. He captured my heart the moment I laid eyes on him. I knew that because of him, I’d never be the same. From the day he was born, I knew he was different from my first child. It was one of the very first things I said about him when people asked me what he was like.
For five and a half years so far, Walker has danced his way across his little corner of this spinning planet, hearing a tune that’s all his own. He’s not exactly like a lot of other kids his age, but he is exactly who he is supposed to be.
When people think about raising an autistic child, it’s the challenges that come to mind.
A lot of people know almost nothing about autism beyond what they’ve seen on sensationalized television programs or exploitative blogs where parents lay out their children’s most personal struggles to showcase how tough life with autism is for them. (Don’t get me started.)
When you’re raising a kid that has some additional needs or special considerations, you become acutely aware of how often your child is seen through the lens of their differences. This can be necessary because kids with differences need different accommodations to be successful. But it can also be disappointing as a parent because it means people consistently underestimate your kid. It means sometimes they are “Walker with Autism” instead of just “Walker Rhys Cloyd, awesome kid.”
Living with a child who isn’t necessary typically-developing does come with different challenges, but it also brings beauty into your life in ways that people might not realize.
I can’t speak for all parents, but if you’ll stay with me and read on, I’d love to share just a few of the ways that having an autistic child has made my life more beautiful—and I think my experiences will resonate with other parents of kids like mine.
We have so many extra reasons to celebrate.
Walker has had to work really extra hard to learn to speak. When he was little, we tried to explore other types of communication, but he was not having it. He didn’t want to use a book, a tablet, sign language, or anything else we suggested. Walker wanted to talk. He’s been in speech therapy for most of his life, and now he talks all day long. We have celebrated along the way with laughter, encouragement, snuggles, happy dances, and even gifts and pizzas.
Even now, he experiences little speech victories that give us a reason to clap and cheer. He recently mastered the L sound, no longer replacing it with a W. He was so proud the first time he called our dog Clementine instead of “Cwementine.” He ran into my room and said, “I did it! I said Clllllemmie!”
Every parent loves celebrating their child’s victories, but when you have a child who has to work SO hard, it’s even sweeter somehow.
Parenting an autistic kid has made me a more flexible parent.
Walker has shown me that there are lots of ways to do things, and my way is not the only way. I wouldn’t say that I am naturally flexible. I like things to be done quickly, efficiently, and in a way that makes sense to me. I like systems—as long as I can put them in place myself.
Walker is not having any of that. This boy does things his own way. He will comply with almost any request as long as I let him do it his way. He isn’t attached to rigid routines like some autistic kids. He likes to change things up. The consistent part is that he gets to make the plan.
It was an adjustment for me, but I’ve basically thrown all non-essential routines out the window. He’s made me a much more laid-back mom, and all three of my kids reap those benefits. If my kid wants to take a bath before dinner, who cares? If someone thinks seven in the morning is the right time for popcorn, why would I argue about that? I’m not going to make an issue about it when Walker takes an extra five minutes in the car in the morning so he can strap his stuffed animals into a seatbelt. He’s a stickler for safety, so I just allow for it.
Accommodating his quirks is second nature to us now, and honestly, most of it is really cute. Have you ever looked back and seen Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy sharing one Graco Booster? Adorable.
My kiddo never lies—which I admit is kind of a double-edged sword.
I can always count on Walker to tell me that he was the one who flushed the toy down the toilet, ate the last donut, or spilled his juice on the dog. (Poor Clemmie.) Walker will let you know if you have something in your teeth, an unsightly pimple, or if he heard you fart. Don’t ask him if you look pretty. He doesn’t know he has to say yes.
We’re working on it. Ha.
But the best part of his radical honesty is that when Walker says he loves you, you know he means it. When he laughs at your joke, it’s because he was truly tickled. When Walker climbs up in my lap and asks why I have a sad face, it’s only because he really, truly cares what the answer is.
His doctors told me he might never understand how to read emotional cues on people’s faces or express empathy. Well, he might miss some subtle facial expressions now and then, but his well of empathy is endless, and his true, honest desire to see the people he loves happy and safe is something he could never fake.
My autistic kid sees wonder where most of us just don’t.
Part of autism for a lot of people is a difference in sensory perception. Walker’s heightened senses can be tough for him on the Fourth of July when fireworks boom all around our little country house, or when he has to walk from a dark movie theater into the bright sunlight.
But they can also be an asset to him.
He can sit cross-legged on the front sidewalk for an hour just watching a row of ants climb over sticks and leaves in the flower bed. If I ask him what he’s doing, he says, “Looking.” Looking is enough for him. He notices things that I walk right by. My son reminds me that life doesn’t have to be extravagant and exciting to be beautiful. You just have to pay attention.
Parenting any kid is a combination of joy and difficulty, topped with a heaping spoonful of “worth it.” When your kid is different, the difficulty is different, too, but the joy? The “worth it?”
Those things are exactly the same—or maybe just a tiny bit sweeter.