written by Sarah Swindell
Has someone ever asked you a question that stops you in your tracks? Well, that happened last year at a book signing for my new memoir, Rounding Home, that had just been published. It was during a Q & A at a bookstore, and let me tell you that simple question hit me dead square in my heart.
While this question would not even come close to affecting most parents as it did me, and would quickly be answered without thinking twice about it, it brought me to tears. Full-blown tears in front of a group of strangers all staring at me with a look of confusion, and maybe a bit of awkwardness as to why I suddenly had silent tears rolling down my face.
A friendly, gentle-looking man with a Santa-like beard in the audience had stood up and asked that simple question that rocked me.
“We have heard and read about how Dawson has impacted you and your family negatively. What is something wonderful about him, or maybe your favorite thing about him that brings you joy?"
I looked into the kind eyes of this total stranger standing out there in the audience and felt a massive lump well up in my throat trying to shove down the audible sob that was trying to fight its way out. I also felt the sudden surge of so many feelings at once. I felt shame, gratitude, joy, and sadness as I glanced over at my husband sitting next to me on stage as I tried to think of how to respond.
The man was right. I spent so much time talking about how difficult life had become after the autism diagnosis and the pain it caused us, it sounded like all that Dawson had brought to our lives was misery. How would one of my typical children feel if they heard me talking about how much pain and suffering they had unwillingly created in our life?
Enter pure and utter shame stage right.
That shame suddenly turned into an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and joy that this man wanted to know something good about Dawson. All I could manage to say through the tears and the gigantic lump was, "Thank you so much for asking that."
I took a deep breath and went on to list all the beautiful things about Dawson and soon realized there were a lot of them. The list forming in my head kept getting longer and longer with each thing I said.
How patient he has made us all. How Dawson made his sisters into the most loving, caring human beings on the planet that will no doubt fight over who gets to care for him after we are gone. How just seeing him smile can make a bad day feel good again. How despite never being able to say a single word, he shows love in only a way that we understand. The list went on and on until I landed on the last one.
It was the people who are in our lives because of him. Some of the most incredible people on the planet we never would have met otherwise. People that dreamed big for our son and that wanted him to succeed even in the smallest ways. People that put our family in their thoughts and prayers when they went to sleep. People that never gave up on helping him be the best he can be and cheered him on through the darkest days. People that let me cry on their shoulders... sometimes uncontrollably.
I have always known Dawson has made everyone in our family better people, but he also brings so much joy into so many other people’s lives as well. That question forced me to realize it in an instant.
There is no doubt that raising a severely autistic child is probably the hardest thing my husband and I will ever have to do in our lifetime, and I would not wish that situation on any family. I can say that without feeling guilty because it is 100% true.
Watching your child struggle with so many things day after day can be gut-wrenching at times. Knowing that he will need life long care and the burden that might cause for our daughters after we are gone. Fear for his safety and wellbeing or being mistreated by a caregiver.
Not having a voice to express his thoughts and feelings is the cruelest thing of all and by far the most painful part. Knowing he will forever be trapped in the world of autism and at nineteen-years-old, hope for a miracle of complete recovery has long since passed.
But Dawson is more, so much more, than a sad story of what having a child with autism is like.
That simple question changed everything about how my future discussions went on from that day forward. He did not ask to have autism and would never intentionally hurt anyone or want to be the cause of anyone's unhappiness, least of all to his family that loves him. We love him more than he loves french fries.
I think it is easy for all of us to dwell on a bad situation or life event. Maybe on that one nasty comment or judgment from other parents. But if you start to think about the beautiful things that are all around you hiding in plain sight, you will quickly notice how long that list suddenly becomes. A long list that comes from one simple question we all need to be asked more often.