You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

I was a weird kid.

A shy kid.  A sensitive kid.

A dreamer.

I knew instinctively, from early childhood on, that I was somehow different from nearly everyone around me.  I was perplexed by people, and they, in turn, seemed somewhat perplexed by me.

I was fascinated by them, though.  I watched them constantly, everywhere I went.  I watched them walking around, making small talk with each other as they passed.  I watched their gestures, their easy, spontaneous laughter.  I studied their faces, picking apart their features, observing the way they smiled and the way their eyes danced while they talked to each other, sharing some small momentary connection with one another.  They were beautiful creatures.

But I wasn’t one of them.

Why?

I didn’t know.  But I was somehow certain of it.

I made a conscious decision to become one of them.  Surely I could do that if I really tried.  I was smart enough, and I knew it.  I could figure this out with sheer willpower and brain power.

One of the first things I realized by my observations is that people didn’t like smart, though.  At least not in girls.  My brother was smart and he was practically worshipped.  I was three years younger, painfully shy and awkward, and I wanted what he had: an easy air of confidence and the respect and admiration of everyone around him.  He deserved it; he was awesome!  I wanted it too, and was determined to get it.

Good grades came effortlessly to me.  I loved standardized testing days, and looked forward to them all year.  School was fairly boring – even with gifted/talented classes – but it gave me plenty of time to observe my peers and try my damnedest to emulate their behaviors.  Somehow, though, I always fell short.  I still replay my childhood social errors in my head, over and over, and berate myself for being “so stupid.”  I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I could be simultaneously intelligent and stupid.  And it seemed that people disapproved of me if I displayed either trait.  I yearned to be average, yet I liked being smart, because it made me feel competent in a world that was confusing and overwhelming.  However, the smarter I appeared, the less people liked me.  Well, the teachers liked me….the children, not so much.  I made a few good friends over the years who accepted me, guided me, and even came to appreciate my weirdness.  The rest of the kids, by and large, treated me with a mixture of mild curiosity and contempt.  They called me things like “bookworm,” “geek,” and “schoolie.”  They teased me for being horrifically inept at all things phys ed-related, for being “gullible,” and for the way I used to bite my nails and the skin on my fingertips until they were raw and bloody.

I kept trying though.  Oh, lord, did I try to fit in.  I’d choose a girl I admired – a cool, confident girl – and try to become her.  I’d emulate everything from her clothing to her mannerisms and speech.  I made an effort to tone down my use of big words while speaking to peers.  It was almost physically painful to do so.  In class, I knew just about every answer to the teacher’s questions, but I made a “rule” for myself: I could only raise my hand for every 6th question.  I spent my school days sitting at my desk, daydreaming, humming tunes to myself, watching kids and counting questions, sitting on my hand to avoid it automatically shooting into the air with each of the teacher’s queries.

I had the typical “pedantic speech” of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, a true “little professor.”  At age one, I could speak in full sentences, yet I did not walk until 17 months.  My mother said she thought I could have walked earlier, but I just too stubborn and scared to try (yep, that sounds about right).  Even as a baby, I was not comfortable with change or trying new things.  I ate basically NOTHING, which was a major source of contention in our family throughout my childhood.  I knew that my “picky” eating habits (which I now know is actually an eating disorder called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) were causing my parents to tear their hair out.  I was also keenly aware that my entire extended family was raising their collective eyebrows and wondering why my parents weren’t force-feeding me ham or the assortment of terrifying, mayonnaise-laden salads at holiday parties.  I wanted to please my family so much, but it wasn’t enough to make me overcome my significant sensory issues and try new foods.  Still, to this day, my diet is quite limited.  I basically survive on assorted cheeses.  My eating habits have only improved marginally since I was that little girl feeling disapproval every time I couldn’t eat what was served for dinner.

My childhood wasn’t all bad.  In fact, in many ways, it was great.  I may have been different, but I was definitely loved.  My parents were unknowingly doing all the right things: consistency, schedules, and routines were big in my family.  My social life may have been tumultuous, but I had stability and support at home.  Dinner was at 5:00 pm sharp every single day.  My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and kept a nice, tidy home.  She and I were close.  I think she was unsure how to handle my intense sensitivity and frequent emotional outbursts, but she understood me in a way that no one else could.  I think she is somewhat of a “dreamer” herself.

Things completely fell apart when my parents got divorced, right at the time I was approaching adolescence, when the social stakes get higher.  I needed support more than ever before, and there was none to be found.  I’m not sure I would have made it through middle school without the help of a very supportive guidance counselor.  I felt….simply lost.  I didn’t know exactly who I was yet, but I knew without a doubt that I was a failure.  A defective person.  I had tried SO HARD to be like everyone else, and I had failed.  Effort and intellect weren’t enough.

It all came to a head at age 14, when I made the decision I had been seriously considering for four years.  I decided to kill myself.

I rummaged through our medicine cabinet and found several bottles of prescription pills.  One said in bold capital letters: “DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL.”  “Perfect,” I thought, as I raided the liquor cabinet, took out my mom’s signature bottle of store-brand Light Vodka, and mixed it with orange soda pop.  I brought all my supplies up to my room, and shook the pills out into three neat piles on the white dresser that used to reside in my pepto-pink little girl bedroom, but was now in a run-down house owned by my mom’s second husband.

Before I started popping the pills in groups of threes and washing them down with swigs of my vodka drink, I set my alarm clock for 6:30 AM.  I thought that if this suicide attempt didn’t work, I’d better be prepared to get up and go to school in the morning, just like any other weekday.  As silly as that action sounds….it saved my life.  The next morning, my brother heard my alarm blaring incessantly and found me in bed, unconscious.  The doctors later told my mom that if I hadn’t been found when I was, I wouldn’t have made it.  Thank goodness for my compulsion for routines!

I’ve come a long, long way since that incident.  That was my darkest moment, and although there were many other dark times in my life after that, they paled in comparison to that singular act of complete desperation and despair at age 14.  Still, I didn’t quite find myself until I was 32…

You see, I’d had a daughter, and she was like me.  She was different too.

She was a weird kid.

A sensitive kid.

A dreamer.

Her eyes shone bright like sunbeams.  She was different, yes, but in a magnificent, magical way.  And I saw myself in her.

I found myself through her.

We dream together now.

 

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Sharing a diagnosis

Yesterday was World Autism Awareness Day, which is a day that many autistic people loathe, and some have renamed Autism Acceptance Day.  I plan to blog more about this topic at a later date, but for now, I’d like to share what I posted on facebook on Autism Awareness Day last year:

April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day. In light of this, Jacob and I would like to share something with you.

Our beautiful daughter, Juliette, has recently been diagnosed with being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Autism is a huge spectrum, and the traits manifest in different ways and to varying degrees for each individual on the spectrum. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

So, what does autism mean for her?

Simply put, it means that her brain is wired a little differently than her neurotypical (quote-unquote “normal”) peers. She thinks, learns, and perceives things through her senses a little differently. She is more sensitive to the world around her. With some extra help and support, she will thrive and succeed at anything she puts her brilliant mind to.

Please don’t ever underestimate her. She is extremely bright. You should see this girl put together puzzles! Her memory is amazing as well. She is sweet, affectionate, happy, and fun-loving. She loves to paint, sing songs, dance like a ballerina, and dress up like a princess.

Please don’t treat her differently than any other three year old. But here are a few things that may help to understand her better:

1. Juliette needs a little extra help in the areas of speech and communication. She has been in speech therapy since age two, and has made amazing progress. She is now able to ask and answer questions, and carry on back-and-forth conversations, things that often don’t come easily to those on the spectrum. We are so proud of her!

2. She has some sensory processing issues. One example of this is in regard to her eating habits. She is a VERY picky eater (much like her mother as a child). The textures of foods bother her. She tends to stick to the foods we typically serve her at home, so do not be offended if she passes up eating much of anything at holiday parties. Don’t worry, she is healthy and growing and strong!

3. Environments with a lot of sensory stimuli (bright lights, loud noises, crowds of people, etc.) can be difficult for her to handle. She may have difficulty sitting still, or have tantrums (she actually has fewer meltdowns than many people on the spectrum, but they do happen occasionally). Please try to be patient and understanding when you see us out in public. Keep in mind she is also three years old, which is a very tough age for any child!

Please don’t worry about her. We are doing everything we can to provide the best possible help and support for her. Research has shown that early intervention is the key to later success for children with autism, and we started getting help for her at a young age. The progress she has made so far is nothing short of astonishing. We began this journey by contacting Birth to Three Early Intervention, which is an amazing organization that I can’t say enough good about. Please, please, please, if you have any concerns about your child’s development, do not hesitate to contact them for an evaluation. If you have any questions, or if I can be a resource for you in any way regarding this, send me a message or email me. I’ll be happy to help!

Juliette is now attending an early childhood preschool program, where she receives speech and occupational therapy services. She absolutely ADORES school, and can’t wait to go every day. We are seeing her blossom and grow in so many ways. It is magical!

Please don’t feel sorry for me because my daughter has autism. Because I’m not sorry. It is just one part of her – like her brown eyes and amazing eyelashes. I love everything about my daughter. She may be different, but different is good! The world would be awfully boring if everyone was exactly the same. My mom always said that I “travel to the beat of a different drum” and I believe my daughter does too. Many of the most intelligent and creative people throughout history have been on the spectrum. Autism comes with unique challenges, but also some pretty amazing gifts. Please don’t look at my daughter as a statistic, as one in sixty-eight…because she is one in a million.

I have no doubt that Juliette is going to excel and do great things in her lifetime. She has a beautiful soul and a bright shining spirit. I am so lucky to get to call her my daughter.

{Image is a three photo collage of Juliette, posing in a cute outfit on World Autism Awareness Day 2015}

collage

I’m happy to say that even after one very eventful year, in which Juliette has made incredible progress, two more of our family members have been diagnosed with autism, and I have learned so much more about the spectrum, all of my words from a year ago still ring true.  🙂

I’m sharing this because a few friends have expressed interest in using my words to share about their child’s autism diagnosis.  I would ask that you please link to this blog post, so I can be credited as the writer.  Thank you!