empathic witness

empathic witness

Have you ever been in a conversation where you don’t feel heard or valued? A conversation where you put your heart on a velvet pillow and then the listener comes back with, um, a self-centered or “I’m so sorry,” response? The kind of response where you leave the conversation wondering what just happened and why or how it shifted away from your story to something completely different.

Here is a scenario: Let’s imagine you work hard every day at your job and there is finally an opportunity for a promotion. So, of course, you interview for the position because you deeply believe you are a qualified candidate. And, then, you receive the phone call that you’re not the person for the job. Suddenly, you are embarrassed and you doubt your (amazing!) abilities at work. Anything like this ever happened to you?

Now, let’s imagine you are sharing this story with your friend or loved one. You say something like, “I can’t believe I didn’t get the job. I am stuck in this position forever. I work so hard and no one sees it!” And then you hear one of these responses from your friend or loved one (the listener):

  • The I Can Do It Better response: “Oh, come on! That is nothing! Before I landed this job, I had to interview about 12 times and I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.”
  • The Advice Columnist response: “You know what you should do is …”
  • The I Feel Sorry for You Response: “OMG! I’m so, so sorry to hear this! I just want to cry for you!”
  • The Girl, You Have NO Idea! response: “Look on the bright side, at least YOU have a job. I’ve been jobless for 6 months now and my dog just … “
  • The Eye for an Eye Response: “Those [insert profanity], let’s scour them on social media right now.”
  • The Supreme Court Response: “You are just not prepared for this position. I’m sure I can help you through this.”

For me, these statements would be completely meaningless to me – and some even hurtful. In fact, I would question whether the listener even heard what I shared with them. I would wonder if they even cared. And, I would likely retreat into myself, trying desperately to process not only my interaction with the listener but also my experience with the job interview. Instead, what I’d rather hear is something like this:

“Amanda, I hear that you are extremely disappointed with not getting this job. If you are comfortable, I would love to hear more. …”

Right there … that is what opens my mind and my heart to the listener. This also helps me to build trust with them because I know that I’m in a safe place and there will be no judgment, no advice, no stories that are better than mine, etc. This is where the magic of empathy begins to take place.

Now, I want you to feel this same experience as it applies to your child on the autism spectrum. Think about the moments when your child is stuck in a sensory meltdown, the world whirling around him and the sensation of a scratch on the finger overwhelming all thoughts. Or the moments when the chicken nuggets and apple slices just all tastes “horrible” and he is hungry, but he can’t verbalize what it is he wants to eat for dinner because he is so overwhelmed with the horrible taste of the chicken nuggets and apple slices.

So much of parenting a child on the autism spectrum is about being an empathic witness. The term sounds a bit more complex then it really is. I like to think of this badge of honor as the person who hears your story with love and understanding. This is very different than being a compassionate witness, someone who gives sympathy or pity to your journey as a human.

It is about responding with love, even when you don’t totally understand. Being an empathic witness is when your child is hurt and upset and confused about the new routine. Listening with empathy is putting aside the judgment and allowing your child’s story and feelings to just flow and spill to the floor. It is hearing the cries and holding your child’s hand when he feels the hurt of someone’s words. It is saying to your child, “I hear you are sad (angry, upset, confused). I’m here to listen to you right now.”

I also like to think about an empathic witness as the person who holds sacred a moment on my journey – and listens to and tries to understand my perspective. In a moment of complete despair or confusion, I want to be heard. And, in these moments, I firmly believe our children on the autism spectrum need us, the parents and the care partners, to be empathic witnesses to their journeys.

Do you find this valuable? Do you know someone who might also enjoy this? Please share so we can collaboratively create a more empathic understanding of autism.

finding me in motherhood

finding me in motherhood

Motherhood is like carrying a paddleboard up the long ramp along the side of a hill with an impatient passerby trying to squeeze next to you. It is the cold earl-gray latte that never received a sip because of the water-hose crisis in the backyard. Motherhood is the one-glass-of-wine night because anything more might push you into a drunken state of oblivion. Motherhood is finding the giggle-button moments hidden between the melted popsicle on the kitchen floor and the empty bird feeders. It is the ultimate balancing act of doctor appointments on the left shoulder, making morning oatmeal on the right shoulder, lifting sad spirts because social distancing is just hard on the right tippy-toe, and taking oh-so-deep breathes just as you tighten your core.

A decade ago I would have sighed, thinking my life was on pause because it was impossible to have it all. I would have told myself that good mothers were awake before her children, preparing breakfast and packing lunch boxes for the day ahead. I told myself that it was okay to skip the workout because my kids needed the nighttime story and kiss goodnight. I also convinced my heart and soul that if I didn’t live up to some of these standards that my kids would see through me – and they would see that I was ill-equipped for this role of motherhood.

These beliefs are difficult to shake, especially when you know you are the stabilizing force in your children’s lives. It is painful to imagine life without you for your children. And, I write these words with great meaning because this is truly a belief system that guides my day-to-day.

And like the wind shifts the water’s movement on a lake, I opened myself to a new way of living. Autism Motherhood is about pulling out those favorite heels and pairing them with your favorite pair of jeans. Autism Motherhood is driving two-hours into the mountains with girlfriends to find laughter, respite, wine-drinking, and late nights watching the moon chase the water. It is also about telling my children that I am passionate about helping others, the written word, the soul of country music, and the steady reminder of the rocky mountains. Autism Motherhood is showing my children that I am me – a strong, confident woman who not only uses an electric drill to install shelves but also listens and cries with the very best. The true definition of motherhood is neither complex nor complete. Instead, it is a series of moments and mistakes and reminders about staying true to yourself. It is about learning big lessons in life from your greatest teachers, your children, about empathy, patience, and forgiveness.

And, hot damn, Autism Motherhood is totally rocking your job via Zoom meetings and phone calls at home while your kids decorate your head with hats in front of your boss. It is prepping lunch and making sure the supplements are still served all while still being a voice at the table with colleagues. It isn’t about apologizing for the noise in the background, rather it is saying, “my time is valuable so let’s get to work.” Motherhood.

So, the next time someone says your life is so crazy and chaotic, your response, fierce women, is, “it is a beautiful life and I wouldn’t change a thing.” Your response is my greatest gifts in life are not only my children but also my passion for listening to the trickle of water and helping others to find empathy, not sympathy, in autism. Your response, and mine, is yes, I am a dynamite mother because of the women inside of me.

Do you find this valuable? Do you know someone who might also enjoy this? Please share so we can collaboratively create a more empathic understanding of autism.

finding joy

finding joy

At the beginning of 2019 I made a commitment with myself that I would give to the world and my community in service, and not out of servitude.  What does this mean?  To me it means, doing what fills UP my bucket rather than what is required of me by social norms, commitments to schedules, and “because it has always been that way.”  To me, service is about giving back to my community in ways that create an upward spiral in my life.

I came to this realization after sitting in yet another long, board meeting for my children’s school.  The monthly meetings committed me to 3 hours of work in a small room with other parents at the school.  The work consisted of reviewing bylaws, coordinating carpet cleanings for the old, worn threads in the school, and planning Saturday community breakfasts.  For some, this work is very meaningful because it directly serves their kids.  For me, this work took away every ounce of precious life from me:  my time, my energy and my joy.  I came home from these meetings feeling not only exhausted from the day’s work at my own school serving as an assistant principal but also completely drained of all joy.

And so I asked myself, why?  I am doing what is good for my community, right?  I sit on three boards, 2 boards that serve special education and this board that serves my children’s school.  I am doing good work.  Yes, this is the mantra I told myself, over and over.  I am doing good work.

That mantra didn’t stick for long.

I wasn’t feeling the good in the work.  I was only feeling the work.  I trudged through the days, trying to find inspiration, joy, or even fun in the service that I truly believed was a necessity to doing good in my community.  And for me, this felt like servitude.

And, like so many other turning points in my life, I found the reigns and made a turn – a sharp turn in fact.  I knew that staying on this particular board would take years of work to get it to the place that felt organized, productive and joy-filled.  I also knew that there were lots of other parents who had the time and energy to do this very work.  It didn’t have to be me.  So, my sharp turn to the right was actually me saying, “I’m not your person for this work.”

When these words came from my mouth, I felt as though heavy shackles were unbuckled from my ankles.  The air around me finally swirled and there was light in my life, again.  Yes, this tiny shift, removed me from servitude and allowed me to focus on the areas where I could serve, allowing me to be present and joy-filled with my own children and loved ones.

So, what does it mean to do something in service?  For me, doing something in service is the time I give to others because I truly believe in the cause.  The awe-inspiring work.  The people.  Service lifts me up and allows me to sing to the world that I believe in something worthy.  Service is that feeling you have in your heart, the thump-thump-beat, that also feels likes glitter being tossed into a gentle wind.   Doing something in service actually fills ME up and brings more energy into my life.  Doing something in service means shoveling my neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks; it means making a cup of tea for a colleague; it looks like advising my home state of Colorado about what impacts special education.  Doing something in service still allows me to come home at night and play with my kids, create that simple meal, and take time to just be.

And, like any mom or parent with a child on the autism spectrum, coming home at night requires all the energy and love and joy you can find in your deep well.   In fact, by coming home depleted from this particular board meeting, my parenting began to feel like servitude.   My son immediately sensed my exhaustion and my lack of, well, everything, and he cycled into meltdowns.  And this, my friends, is not what this journey is about.

So, as 2020 approaches, I encourage you to think about all the ways you give forward to your communities and to our world.  I encourage you to think about how it makes you feel.  If you discover you feel depleted, then ask yourself if what you are truly giving is worth it.  In 2020, I will continue to ask myself if the service I give truly brings me joy.  Because if your service is joy-filled then the energy it provides others will also be joy-filled.  And, on the flip side, if your service depletes you of energy and brings out negative vibes, then this is also the energy it gives to others.

What will your shift into joy look like for 2020?

meditation walk

meditation walk

 At first, my walks outside with Aussie dog consisted of me and, of course, Aussie.  She walked steadily at my heel, carrying her rainbow llama stuffy in her mouth. We strolled to the block where the green patch of grass spread long, like a narrow runway carpet.  Zipping in between the trees, Aussie walked, carrying her rainbow stuffy, and stopping only when she found the perfect place. And as if the stuffy no longer existed, she dropped it from her mouth and started the tedious task of sniffing.   She sniffed and scratched and burrowed her nose until she found it: her potty spot.  

This potty walk often took twenty minutes.  I learned to love these walks because they brought me moments of respite from what felt like blaring sirens inside the tiny walls of my condo.  These potty walks occurred at 4:45 AM when the wiggles could no longer be contained. These potty walks dipped into my regular dish-washing time at 7:30 PM.  These potty walks took my routine and harnessed new energy into my days.  

And then one day, after another normal evening walk, I walked down the long hallway back to my condo to hear screaming.  The cries pulled the roots of my hair because the cries sound like my children, Buddy and Sissy. Aussie’s ears also perked up and her stride quickened because her new love for my children told her something wasn’t okay. 

Turning the corner of the long hallway, my children stood in the hallway with our neighbors, who did what they could to calm the heightened cries.  Looking at me, Buddy screamed, “you and Aussie left me! I feel sacred!” Locking eyes with mine, Sissy blared, “I’m scared, too, Mommy. Buddy scared me when he cried.”  

I breathe in deeply. 

I exhale long and completely.  

The neighbor turns to me, smiling and then winking an eye at me as if saying, “I know and I get it.”   And with a gentle touch to the shoulder, the neighbor turns to my children, offers a gentle smile and says, “See, everything is okay.”    Then I sigh. I smile. I hug my kids. I reassure them that everything is okay. And then our nightly routine begins.  

And the next night, when Aussie’s potty walk ensued with her wiggly-butt and nose-nudging in my knee, I begin to dress her with her harness and leash.  And, like every night prior, I said to my kids, “Aussie and I are going out for our walk.” But on this night, both my kids ran to me and cried, “no, don’t leave us alone, Mommy!”   And without any question, both kids bundle into their snow boots and winter coats.  

When the elevator hits the ground floor, I hear the quintessential pterodactyl screech from Buddy, initiating a loud rebuttal from Sissy, “stop making so much noise!”  Aussie softly looks to Buddy, knowing she needs to calm him, yet not knowing how with a leash tethered to me and him running 10 feet ahead of us. I’m sure I also heard a deep breath in and long exhale from Aussie that night.  

The walk continued with Sissy singing a song about unicorns in the sunshine and also dancing a ballet-like dance on the narrow strip of sidewalk.  Buddy tromped along, heavy footsteps, angry and sulky like. The intermittent exchanges between Buddy and Sissy consisted of screams, tongues sticking out, finger poking, and even raspberry blowing from lips.   Our Aussie dog continued to hold her rainbow llama in her mouth, steady in her walk and purposeful in her search for the perfect spot. And for me, my routine potty walks that inspired new energy into my days was now injected with thick tension.

And the walk ended.  

I breathed in deeply.  

I exhaled long and completely. 

On the second night of our potty walk, I set a new rule.  “Okay, kiddos, tonight we will practice meditation walking.”  Two sets of eyes looked back at me with questioning and confusion.  “Mom,” I can’t be still if you also want me to walk said, my wise daughter.  “Yeah, Mom,” interjected Buddy. “How are we supposed to be still? You know the way you are still in the mornings on your yellow chair?”  

I giggle inside.  I know what I am saying does sound crazy.  I also know that Aussie and I have to find peace in our walks, again.  

“Let’s try it anyway,” I respond.  As I explain how tonight’s walk will be different from the night before, I suddenly hear my daughter asking, “Mom, what if I have a question on the walk?  What if I need to go potty, too? What if I need to sing a song?”  

I giggle inside, again. 

“Sissy, then you wouldn’t be on a meditation walk, would you?”  I say.  

We pile into our elevator and wait for it to hit the ground floor.  I hear the quintessential pterodactyl screech from Buddy, initiating the usual loud rebuttal from Sissy.  “Remember, our meditation walk begins as soon as we walk outside. So, get out all of your questions now.”  

I wait.  No questions.  

We walk.  Aussie holds her rainbow llama stuffy in her mouth.  Buddy walks next to Aussie in the grass, looking down at his footprints in the crunchy ice-like snow.  He holds a bubble in his mouth, a term he learned in his elementary classroom, to help him to keep his words inside.  And he walks. And he makes footprints. We walk. And then Sissy begins, “I hate this. I just want to sing, and I don’t know why I can’t.  I’m going to sing!” She looks at me with a small grin across her face. I give her a gentle smile. And Buddy, Aussie and I listen to her sing for our entire walk.  

Like clockwork, when we reach the interior of our building, my son finally lets the bubble from his mouth drift away.  He yells, “Mom, she didn’t follow the rules of our meditation walk! She cheated! This is so unfair! Why is my life so unfair!”  Sissy smiled and then caught his bubble in her mouth for the elevator ride to the 2nd floor and the walk down the hallway to our condo.  

On the third night of our potty walk, I say the new rule, again.  “Okay, kiddos, tonight we will practice meditation walking.” Two sets of eyes looked back at me with questioning and confusing.   “Really, Mom? After last night, you think we should do that, again?”  


Small bickering begins.  Aussie picks up her rainbow llama stuffy and harnesses her leash around my body.  Opening the door, I ask my kiddos if they’d like to join Aussie and me for a meditation walk.  “Ugh,” I hear from both Buddy and Sissy. “I guess we have to, right, Brother?” says a confident Sissy.  “I guess so,” says an equally confident Buddy. 

And our walk begins as soon as we roll out of the elevator.  Buddy puts another bubble in his mouth and walks ten strides ahead of me and Aussie.  Sissy holds a bubble in her mouth, too, and carries a small umbrella over her head. The moon shines bright and I can see the Little Dipper above me.  I hear the crunch-crunch of the ice-like snow beneath me. I watch the small steps ahead of me. I look behind me and see Sissy twirling her umbrella between her purple-fleeced mittened hands.  

And we walk.  

We listen.  

And I, again, harness this peaceful energy.  

my heart hurts

my heart hurts

“Mom, please can I sleep in your bed tonight?” pleaded two sets of still-awake eyes.  My eyes responded with a head shake, side-to-side.  But those two sets of still-awake eyes wouldn’t give into that single rejection.

“Come on, Mom!  We can have story time with flash-lights tonight!  And we will sleep with all of the pillows on the bed!”  squealed my daughter in pure delight.

“Mom, let’s go!  I’ll turn on the night-night music and we will be tired in about 2 hours,” chimes my very bright, but not-yet -understanding-of-time, daughter.

There really was no choice now.  The kids snuggled into my king size bed and built pillow walls around the exterior of their small bodies (only to be knocked down by the night-time kicking and turning).  They snuggled their blankets under their arms and giggled at each other.  I’m sure somewhere in their telepathic minds they were telling each other, “We won!  We did it! We got into Mom’s bed!”

And then I snuggled into bed, too.  I pulled out some of our favorite books and began to take my kids on a journey through words and pictures.  Voices lulled and only small breaths, in-and-out could be heard.  When one book ended I then turned to look at my children: one child still awake and another already into her slumber land.

“Should we read another book, Buddy?”  I ask, reaching for his favorite dinosaur encyclopedia book.  I can read a few pages from your favorite.

“Yea, Mom.  Let me pick-out the page,” and Buddy reached across his sister to get the dinosaur book.  He paused mid-reach.  He put his right hand over his chest.

“Mom, I hurt,” said Buddy in one of those voices that no mother wants to hear.

With sister in the middle, her rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow and blanket now covering her face, I whisper to my son, “where do you hurt, Buddy?”

“My heart hurts, Mom!”  he cries out in pain.  “Mom, my heart hurts!  It is running really fast.  I can feel it ticking right now.  And it feels like a sword inside.  Like it is moving around and around.  Mom, my heart hurts!” he continued.

“Alright,” I say with a calm voice.  “How about we try some water?  Maybe you are dehydrated.” I respond as I crawl out of bed and head toward the kitchen, which is only about five steps from my bedroom.

And then I hear shrieks of pain.  It is a nail shattering a piece of glass.  It is a sound that puts all mothers on alert, high alert.  It is the sound of your child in pain.

Quick steps lead me back into my bedroom where my son is now screaming in pain.  His small body is tucked into a fetal position and his skin is dewy and warm.  Small tear-drops of sweat bead at his hairline and he begins to breathe very heavily.  I scoop him into my arms, protecting my daughter from the distress call, the panic, and the absence of her unicorn-filled dreams.   Closing the bedroom door, I rush my son to the couch, literally on the other side of my bedroom wall.  Laying him down he continues to wail and scream and thrash.  He screams, “my heart hurts, my heart hurts, my heart hurts!” Then he follows with “my heart is on fire!”

I breath in.

I breath out.

Picking up the phone, I call my own mother, a registered nurse with a lifetime of experience.  She would know what to do, I tell myself.

And when she picks-up the phone and also hears the wailing in the background from my son, and the panic in my voice, and the knowing that it is me, just me, at my condo with my kids.  She knows this feeling.   And then she says, “You need to call 9-1-1, right now.  I’ll call your sister.  You need to hang up the phone and call 9-1-1.”

And I do.

And I can’t remember my address, so I scurry into my kitchen cabinet to pull out a bill with my address on it.  My reminder of where I live.  And my code to the building.  What is the code to my building?  I can’t remember that either.

“It’s okay, our guys can still get into your building,” the operator responds.

And then I panic, again, because I realize my daughter is slumbering in my bedroom.  She is tucked in tight with her pillows and her blanket and her rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow.  My daughter!  What if we go to the hospital?  I tell the emergency operator that I’m getting off the phone because now I have to find a neighbor, someone to keep eyes on my girl for me.  My son continues to wail and scream even more because he sees the panic in my body.  He feels the energy shift from a mom who has her shit together – to a mom who has just dropped all the puzzle pieces on the floor.

Pound, pound, pound.

Knock, knock, knock.

Pound, pound, pound.

My banging and pounding and knocking do nothing.  My neighbors are either asleep or are gone for the evening.  Dripping with fear, I walk my son back to the couch and cover him with his weighted blanket.  I look into his eyes, asking him to take deep breath for me.

I breath in with him. 

And then I breath out with him.

And then there is a crew of 11 humans in my living room made for just 3.  There are wires hooked up to a box.  There are stickers placed on Buddy’s chest.  An arm band is wrapped around his small bicep.  And my son continues to point to his chest; however, now there are no words.  There are 11 humans in our living room.  The air is hot and sticks to our bodies.  The paramedics talk in hushed tones.  They each try to convince Buddy to allow them to rearrange the stickers on his small chest.  Buddy refuses, pulling his body under his weighted blanket.

I look at the paramedics and explain that my son is on the autism spectrum.  He often won’t use words when he is feeling scared.  This is one of those times.

And the paramedics pause … wondering what this might actually mean in this moment.  Rather than explaining, I poke my head under Buddy’s blanket, talking in hushed tones about how the stickers came from the ambulance parked out front.  And the stickers are really important because they would help us know what your heart was feeling.   Buddy shook his head, again.  Then he said, pointedly, “No!” And this continued for another 10 minutes.

It was at this point that the decision was made for Buddy to ride in the ambulance to the hospital.  Because Buddy refused to speak and continued to show signs of pain in his chest, the paramedics took the side of caution.

“Okay, but I can’t leave just yet.  My daughter is asleep in my bedroom.” I respond to the paramedics.

“I need to wait for my sister to arrive,” I say hurriedly.   And I glance at my phone, hoping that a text message will soon pop up that she is almost at my condo.

“Alright, but we need to leave soon to get your son checked-out.  We don’t know what is going on and it is better if he is seen by a doctor,” responded the paramedic.

“Yes, yes.  I know,” I say in a worried tone.

What is a mother supposed to do in this situation?  Her son is in pain and getting ready to be transported to the hospital and her daughter is lost in slumber-land.  Do I wake my daughter, potentially causing trauma for her?  Do I send my son in the ambulance and then drive separately?  Why do I need to make this choice – I ask myself.

And, then, my sister appears in the doorway with a small overnight bag and calm smile.  She steps assertively into my condo and finds Buddy’s slippers and his favorite stuffed gecko.  She packs a spare change of clothes in case we need to stay at the hospital.  Then she hands everything to me.  She takes care of it all for me. “Go, I can sleep next to Sissy,” she says in a reassuring voice.

“Thank you.  Not sure how I would do this without you,” I say.  With a quick hug goodbye, I dash down to the ambulance to meet my son who is snuggled into the ambulance with his weighted blanket and his stuffed gecko.  I sit next to him, holding his hand, answering questions from the paramedics, and trying to keep track of everything that is being said to me.

The rest of the night – the long night – consisted of tests and more tests and almost two viewings of the Harry Potter movie on the hospital TV screen.  I talked with cardiac specialist, the pediatric resident, and other doctors, too.  And the conclusion:  my son had a panic attack.

What?  A panic attack?  He is only 8-years old.  How can he possibly be having a panic attack?

But, his heart hurts.   

And his chest is in pain.   

And his breathing is labored. 

Yes.  These are all signs of a panic attack.

And then, the doctors put in the discharge papers and scoot us out the door at 4:00 AM.  I couldn’t possibly call anyone in my tribe this early – it was the hour of REM sleep.   So, I called for a Lyft.  The ride home smelled of the gas-station vanilla air freshener and sounded like rap music that never quite made the top-10 list.  I wanted to yell at the driver, “Do you know what kind of a night we’ve just had?  Do you know that my son had a panic attack?  Do you know that your music is doing nothing to calm him … me?”  And when I look over at my son, slumped next to me, his eyes are closed, and his breathing is gentle and soft.

I don’t yell at the driver.  How he could possibly understand the context of this very moment?  How could understand the days leading up to the panic attack with sour tummy aches and bad dreams?  How could he understand the worry that also consumed me when I received phone calls in the middle of his school days, reporting him running out of the classroom and then trying to escape from school.  And what about the stacks of supplements that I hid into Buddy’s food each day – hoping that somehow his body and mind would find some peace.  And what would be the purpose in sharing any of this with a complete stranger?

Alas, I assure myself, he is driving us home at 4:00 AM.  And I wonder what his story might be?

I breathed in.

I breathed out.

Then we reached our small condo on 64th Lane.  I scooped my son into my arms from the Lyft car that sounded like rap music that never quite made the top-10 list, and I carried up to the 2nd floor.  I methodically opened the front door and quietly took off my shoes and then tip-toed to my son’s room and put his head on the pillow.

“Amen,” I whispered to my son.  “You are perfect and wonderful just as you are,” I said as he rolled over and drifted away into his own slumber-land.

And then I walked into the kitchen where my sister stood waiting for me.  She had her bag draped across her shoulder and she smiled her reassuring smile, again.  “How was it,” she asked?

“Just a panic attack,” I responded in a weary tone.

I could see the exhaustion in my sister’s eyes.  I could see that she hadn’t slept either – only laid her pillow next to my daughter’s rat-a-tat hair all over the pillow and her soft breathing.

“She never woke up,” shared my sister.  “I don’t think she even knows that you were gone and that I was here,” she said with a smile.  Embracing my sister with a hug, I watched her find her car keys and then head out the front door because in a mere two hours she would need to be at work.

And when I finally slipped into my bed next to my daughter, I crashed into a deep, hard sleep.  And within an hour, I was to be awakened by a giggly voice chiming, “Hi Mommy!  How was your sleep time?”  I curled my daughter into my arms, knowing that she only remembers drifting into her slumber-land from the previous night.  “I’d like to hear about your sleep time, Sis,” I respond with a smile.  “Well, I had mermaids swimming in my dream.  And then there was a sparkly cupcake with pink frosting and …”

And that was the moment that I remembered my power as a mother.  I had the power to protect my daughter from my own internal turmoil.  I possessed the power to listen to her dream and snuggle with her in the morning.  I created my reassuring response to this world that circled around me and my children.  And, I wanted my response to be that of loving honesty.

“Sissy,” I said in gentle voice, “I can tell you about my night.  Your brother and I had an adventure last night in an ambulance. …”  Sharing the small parts of the story gave my daughter the perspective she needed to understand and also to move forward with her day.  “Okay, Mommy, so Buddy will be okay? Right?” she questioned. And with a reassuring nod, I watched Sissy hop out of my bed and waltz into her day.

horse (mare) therapy

horse (mare) therapy

Horsemanship is the art of mastering our movements, thoughts, emotions and behavior.  Not the horses. –  Mark Rashid

When my son is on a horse, his mind stills, and words clear.  His body adjusts to the movement, the cadence of the horses’ shoes printing the soft earth.   His body feels the horses’ cadence, and in turn he adjusts his stature.  He sits in the saddle and turns his entire body in circles on the saddle – legs and arms gently rotating 360 degrees – while the horse continues to walk.  His arms stretch long and big, like a T, as he balances his small body on the center of the horses’ strong, graceful back.

When my son is with a horse, he is in perfect balance with himself.  

The loud shrieks and repetitive flailing disappear.  The anxiety from his day is washed away.  No longer does he have to worry about how to interact with his friend on the playground; how to sound out a word; how to tell the difference between the “b” and “d” sounds; how to read someone’s emotional body language; why the water heater makes a clicking noise; how to calm his own body; how to ask appropriate questions; what someone might think of him; why the pencil eraser makes a sound that hurts his small ears; how to still his mind.  All of this occurs in one small moment – and continues for all moments in every day.  Some say this is why “they’ve lost their child to autism,” or “they can’t see their child anymore.”  Truly, our children are not lost.  Rather, they are processing everything around them, in front of them, within them and for them.

Yet, I know this feeling.  And, my son lives with it every minute.  It can feel as though you are losing your child to his/her own thoughts.

Yet, his new horse companion, Freckles has allowed my son to explore parts of himself that even his very talented therapists can’t do.  Freckles has provided my son with the opportunity to feel calm and stillness.  Freckles stands strong when my son brushes his dusty, white coat.  And when my son finds that perfect spot, just below Freckles’ cheek, a smile curves his lips as Freckles leans into the brush stroke.  And when my son uses the hoof pick to clear out dirt and debris, Freckles accepts his invitation, by lifting his leg willingly as if part of a daily ritual.

In these moments with Freckles, I can see my son’s outlook on life.  I can see his sharp focus and tenacity for learning more about Freckles.  I feel his simple joy as he touches his small hands to Freckles’ cheek.  I feel his sense of pride, empowered by just being with Freckles.   I watch as his, often, impulsive body language is tethered by his desire to care for Freckles.  His arms move with purpose as his shovels up piles of debris in Freckles’ stall.   And, I listen to him, when he says to me, “Mom, thanks for bringing me to Freckles tonight.”  And, I know that these words, not heard very often, are the true feelings of my son.

Thank you, Freckles, for all of your horse words and whispers to my son.  You have opened the barn door for him.

I share this with you because there is not a one-size-fits-all therapy for individuals on the spectrum.  In fact, our journey continues to point us in a multitude of directions: talk therapy, occupational therapy, social skills therapy, horse therapy, private tutoring, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and more to come.  With every new exploration, I remind myself to stay open to the experience because it may be another key to unlock another beautiful piece of my son.  It is the moments with Freckles that I lean on – that I remember – when the other moments challenge my strength as a mother.  This is, yet another, tool for parenting on the autism spectrum:  horse therapy.


Resource:  Sara Hatamaya, Horseback Riding Lessons and Training.

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