Autism’s supporting cast of family and friends over the years have been an immeasurable resource, keeping me grounded, encouraged and determined. I’m grateful and thankful for the family and friends who have happily taken on the challenges of autism when it has presented itself. Especially at times when I was feeling overwhelmed, drained or didn’t feel up to addressing the questions about autism.
I remember a time years ago when we were boating on Lake Mendota with friends of ours. Jonathan has always loved the water in any and all capacities. But those times on the lake, swimming, tubing, helping his dad drive the boat were ones that felt untouched by the presence of his autism.
One time, after a long day of boating, we headed over to a favorite lakefront restaurant for dinner. We were a rather large, boisterous group of 9, consisting of 4 adults and 5 kids, so loudness and laughter prevailed wherever we set sail. Within a short time we were seated, had ordered, and were waiting for our food to arrive when Jonathan’s autism decided to make an appearance.
Jonathan was getting restless and began vocalizing rather loudly. As his father and I did our best to appease him, he continued and suddenly I realized we had an audience.
This spotlight was not unfamiliar for us as a family, but it was the first time our friends had experienced being in the limelight. The stares turned into glares, followed by not so subtly whispered comments. My typical response was to take opportunities like this as a way to educate. Autism caught me at a weak moment and my resolve began to crumble. I could feel tears starting to swell.
My friend Sherry took one look at me and with a big smile on her face said: “I got this!”. She proceeded to walk over to the nearby table and in the most friendly manner, took center stage in the role of educator, supporter and champion. As I watched her determined and staunch defense of Jonathan I felt my tension dissolve. With the ease and grace of a seasoned advocate she immediately had her audience’s attention. At first, they looked apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. But as she informed the group about what they were witnessing, you could see that she was making inroads. They began to relax and nod, several looking over with a smile of acceptance and understanding. When she finished her delivery, she thanked them for their time and compassion. And as Sherry headed back to the table, I realized my army of advocates was so much larger than I had ever imagined.
There will always be people in our lives, whether family, friends or even acquaintances, who are willing and able to shield us from an audience of autism onlookers. What that audience sees are only very short clips, not the entire production. They aren’t privy to the daily struggles, frustrations and even triumphs that happen behind the scenes. But our friends and family have a front row seat and recognize when we need a stand-in to stand up for us. While we often feel like this journey is all our own, times like these are great reminders to let others prop us up along the way. Especially on those occasions when we need it the most and least expect it.
Our role as educators and advocates is there to ensure that autism’s audience is always ready for the next act.