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Breaking News - We Had Birthday Party Success

By Benison O'Reilly - 7th March 2013

Recently the Huffington Post featured an article called The Upside of Autism  by Jackie Morgan MacDougall.  It opened with these lines: "People often talk about the difficulties associated with parenting a child with autism.... But this post isn't about that. I want to recognize and celebrate the upside of autism, a blessing we "special needs parents" are given somewhere, somehow -- packaged up in a huge gift I like to call 'perspective.' "

In the article the author writes about the simple joys of watching her son with autism play his first game of soccer: not because he starred or scored a goal, simply because he was out there on the field, participating and enjoying himself.  I wish I could have shown it to a woman who bored me senseless at a dinner a few months back when she banged on how she’d had to become reconciled to the fact her youngest wasn’t going to become an ‘A-grade soccer player’ like her two siblings. Pass the tissues someone.  Not only was the story was boring, it was insensitive - this woman knew I had a son with special needs.

MacDougall’s article rang many bells with me. Once you’ve stared into the abyss - as I did once when Joe, my then 3-year-old son with autism, was assessed as having moderate-to-severe developmental delay -  any achievement, any milestone, is celebrated with extra fervour. For a while we also persevered with soccer for Joe. Seeing him for the first time in his uniform was a thrill, but after a few years we reached the inevitable conclusion... well, that he wasn’t very good. What’s more he hated it. His soccer skills were okay but his slow visual processing meant he couldn’t keep pace with the other players, let alone the ball.  

Yet  we’ve had our special ‘triumphs’ with our boy, like the fact he scored in the average range for spelling and numeracy in his Year 5 NAPLAN.  ‘Only average?’ many of you might think, but remember we were told he was severely developmentally delayed when he was three. For our child to be average at anything is a ‘crack open the champagne’ occasion.  Similarly, he recently started piano lessons and is displaying genuine ability. After three months he’s conquered his scales and Ten Little Indians but it sounds like Chopin to his mum.  

MacDougall also writes about her feelings before the big game: "My nervous energy was palpable: my incessant pre-game pep talk, the way I paced back and forth before the game... I was practically jumping out of my skin with anxiety (and a little excitement) over how it would all go down." Oh, I know that too: the rollercoaster ride of being an autism mum, your senses constantly on high alert. 

Recently I had to organise Joe’s birthday party. We’ve had one every year he’s been at primary school and this was to be his last. When it comes to Joe, it’s like someone’s peeled off the entire top layer of the skin on my body, I’m so sensitive about him.   Normally I’d class myself as a fairly sane person, but I become slightly nutty around my youngest. Thus when  a parent calls to say their child can’t come to his birthday party, instead of thinking ‘Bewdy, one less mouth to feed!’ like I might do if he was one of his big brothers, I think, ‘Are they not coming because they don’t like him?’  I’m the sort of person who can stand up in an auditorium and deliver a speech to 1000 people with barely a butterfly, but I’ll readily admit I lost sleep over my son’s damn birthday party.

As it turned out, quite a few kids couldn’t attend Joe’s party this year, but the parents who gave apologies seemed to offer genuine reasons (I refrained from sending a private investigator to check on them!) and we had a big enough crowd for it to be respectable. We held it at a climbing gym run by the nicest people on earth, who openly welcomed my special kid and his friends and even gave us a discount on the bill. The kids loved the climbing, so much so that a couple of dads nearly had to prize their sons off the walls with a chisel. The pizza and cake went down a treat and there were lots of hugs and calls of ‘great party’ at the end.  It was such a lovely day my husband and I may have even cracked the champagne again with good some friends afterward.  

So, yes, there are upsides to autism. You never, ever, take anything for granted. I think that’s a rare gift. 

Benison O’Reilly is the co-author of  The Australian Autism Handbook - a new edition will be published next month. 

The Upside of Autism by Jackie Morgan MacDougall

image freedigitalphotos.net

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