Raising an Autistic Child
A new mom realizes the true purpose of being a parent when she learns her son is autistic. She learns to shift her perspective and finds hope through faith.
Emirick Haro: How many of you remember your childhood dreams and aspirations? Maybe some of you looked up into the night sky and dreamt of becoming an astronaut one day, or maybe you loved animals and thought you could become a veterinarian. Or maybe you wanted to be a famous movie star or singer or pro-athlete. Well, I remember my childhood dreams and fantasies of what I wanted to be when I grew up. And what I wanted to be was far braver than any astronaut or animal doctor. What I wanted to be was a mother.
Since my childhood I was obsessed with babies and little kids. And if one were in my presence I would light up and there was this need in me to have to connect to hold her or to talk to her. I grew up in a big family and a big church community where babies and little kids were always around. And as I got older I became the go to babysitter. Eventually this passion led me into a career in Education and throughout every experience I gained I took notes in my head of the kind of mother I would be and the kind of child I would have. I had it all planned out from the sports he would play to the cute outfits he would wear to the conversations and experiences we would have. I had it all figured out and I knew that this business of raising kids would be pretty straightforward.
And then in December of 2000, I became a mother. I gave birth to my first child and life was grand. I started reading this book entitled, “What to Expect the First Year,” and I carefully observed my son’s growth and development. Proud that he was reaching every milestone on time if not earlier. First smile, check. Turned over, check. First tooth, check. First steps, super checks since he did that like two months earlier than the average according to my handy book. First words? Well time had passed by and I could not check off this milestone. His 1st birthday came and went, still no words. Not only that, he didn’t seem to play like the other kids. He didn’t even play with toys the right way.
So I stopped reading that book because now it was a scary and annoying book. And I started reading a new book entitled, “Late Talking Children.” This book pacified my worries by telling me that late talking children were smart. So I kept dismissing the issue and made excuses as to why he wasn’t talking. Well his 2nd birthday came and went, still no words, no friends, and more strange behaviors. He would do this thing where he would babble lines to entire movies and act out all the scenes and you couldn’t make him stop, you couldn’t turn it off. It was quite disruptive at times. So someone had mentioned autism. And I cringed. I would not believe it. I would not believe that God would let this happen to me. So, I prayed and I asked God “Please God, don’t let Russell be autistic.” And I kept faith in that prayer, and continued to deny the issue. But time kept going and months passed his second birthday. I could no longer ignore things. I took him to see a professional whom I hoped would look deeply into my son, see all these wonderful things and tell me he’s just a late bloomer. Well, five minutes into the appointment, the doctor diagnoses him with autism in five minutes. I was so mad. I was mad that this doctor could not see the things that I could see. Mad that he would not give my son a chance to not be autistic.
And the best advice they can give me was this: “Join a support group to help you learn some coping strategies and sign your son up for some behavior therapy because there is no cure to autism.” This was so painful. This child was my heart and I felt completely out of control. So I had two choices: A) I could be angry at God for not giving me what I so desperately wanted, giving me what I thought I deserved, which would eventually make me lose faith in God and have to take up this entire burden by myself, or B) I can humble myself to God’s plan. Accept that His will is greater than my own and lean on Him for strength. So let me tell you what happened.
My husband had to take charge of the situation and force me to see things differently. He told me, “Look lady, our son’s life is not about you.” He had to say it a few times. “This is not about you. This is about Russell. This is not about you.” He told me, “Who cares what other people think, this is not about you, this is not about them. It’s not about me. This is only about Russell.” He told me, “That our son being autistic doesn’t mean that he’s not going to be happy and have a good future. It doesn’t mean that God has left us.” He said, “That the path may look a little different but we’re still going to do whatever it takes to make sure that he has a good life.”
I was in shock. I hadn’t realized that I was making this whole raising kids thing about myself. Fortunately, when I came to this realization, my paradigm shifted and I had to quickly re-adjust my attitude and my mindset. And so I chose option B.
We prayed. We prayed really hard, and we changed our prayers from, “Please don’t let Russell be autistic,” to “Please help us to understand Your plan and give us the wisdom and the strength to execute it.” Well remember how I told you that the best advice I could find was to join a support group? That’s how it was before this prayer. I could not find any real advice to give me any real solution or hope for the future. But after we changed our prayer, like literally the next day, someone came and told me about a holistic doctor in San Diego who has had success with autistic patients. Someone else had referred me to this innovative Speech Therapist who suggested that we remove dairy from his diet. We were getting advice left and right and my research was becoming more fruitful. We changed his diet, he went through several therapies, behavioral as well as biomedical. He got admitted into a Special Preschool. I started reading a bunch of books about autism and parenting. Basically we rolled up our sleeves and we got to work. Now if you think I’m going to tell you that my son is cured of autism, hello there is no cure to autism. But I will tell you how amazing my son is and how kind God is.
Russell was first believed to be severely autistic. His lack of speech both expressive and receptive, his inattentiveness to social situations, as well as his awkward and erratic behaviors made professionals think that he was on the severe end of the Autism Spectrum. But when Russell turned five, he just started talking.
And he didn’t talk at the beginning like most kids do when they begin talking. He just started reading. He was reciting the alphabet, he was counting numbers. It’s like everything we had been teaching him, everything we had been talking to him about when we thought we were talking to a brick wall, he had been listening and absorbing all of that information. And when the time was right, it just all came out.
At this time, he was about ready to start Kindergarten, but the school district was not keen on admitting him into a regular kindergarten class. So we kept an open mind and we sought help from God through prayer. Eventually we went back to the school district and we presented our case for why we believed that our son would be best placed in a regular kindergarten classroom. After some conversations back and forth the school district agreed. They placed him in a regular Kindergarten class and they gave him a one-on-one aid. And Russell thrived in school.
Today, my son is a Sophomore in high school.
He’s 16 years old and he still participates in the regular curriculum and continues to do very well in school. He sings in the Church choir, he loves to draw and invent new cartoon characters. He’s passionate about the movie industry and he’s taken up Film and Animation. He has his own YouTube channel where he shares his creations and he calls it, Russdom. You can look for him on YouTube. He helps in our Church’s Film and Animation team to make movies to teach others about faith. He has goals to one day go to College and learn how to become a professional movie person. He still has his quirks because he sees the world a little differently than the average person but I think that’s what makes him amazing.
He is honest, sometimes brutally. He chases his dreams with such confidence and he doesn’t let the world’s negativity get to him. He has a heart of gold with the ability to love even the unlovable. And he has a logical understanding of God that challenges the logic of this world.
He’s a little different from what I had imagined when I was pregnant with him 17 years ago. He’s much more than what I had ever imagined, which is proof that God’s design is much better than my own.
As for me, I’m definitely a changed person. I do my best to not make everything about myself, which is still a work in progress but I’m working on it. But I no longer see God’s function to be a wish-granting genie. Rather I know that God sets us on a path to help us to become better people with a better future.
Now I’m often asked to give advice to other parents whose worlds have been put upside down because of autism. I wish I could give you a step-by-step formula or some sure-fire way that would help your child function at his best. But the best advice I can give you is this: Have the right perspective because the way you see the situation has a lot to do with the way you’re going to handle it. I think it’s best that we see that these kids that we have been blessed with are not ours. They belong to God, but they’ve been placed in our care so that we can raise them up for Him.
He made them so they all have a God-given purpose and it’s our job to help them fulfill this purpose. When we see the situation like that, we change the way we parent. We stop focusing on silly insignificant things and we instead focus on things like character. We encourage them to find meaning and purpose and we help them to develop skills that they can use to serve others, with a purpose to serve in some way or capacity. If we see it like this, we can raise all our kids to be the best they can be, not for us but for God. And when we do our best for God, there’s always hope for the future.
Now, my son wanted to be here to share a few words with you, but he couldn’t be here today so the next best thing we have is a recording of him with his advice to you.
[Video Of Russell Haro]
Russell: Hi my name is Russell and I’m 16 years old, a Sophomore in high school and I’m into Film and Animation so I have my YouTube as of now. It’s called Russdom. Mainly, I am a member of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, Church of Christ.
Emirick: If someone was sad about being different, what would be your advice to them?
Russell: It shouldn’t bother you that you’re different because everyone is different.
Emirick: What are some values you live your life by?
Russell: I try to be honest. I’ll try to learn from my mistakes, I try to ignore the mean people in life and mostly, have faith.”
Emirick: On behalf of my family, I just want to thank you for listening to our story.