When my son John Matthew entered kindergarten, I saw before me our future of living in an autism world. Within one short year, I learned that our life would be full of hope and despair, answers and unanswered questions, triumphs and challenges, acceptance and intolerance, laughter and tears, and friendships and loneliness.
I learned about DESPAIR, UNASWERED QUESTIONS, CHALLENGES, INTOLERANCE, TEARS and LONELINESS, as I . . .
* Watched him stand at the top of a playground slide, virtually invisible to his classmates below, and call out repeatedly, "somebody come play with me!"
* Listened to him as he struggled to have conversations with other children, because, when he was finally able to get their attention, they had moved onto another topic and interest.
* Saw his kindergarten classmates roll their eyes and smirk as they watched him (once again) try unsuccessfully to secure a place in line as they were leaving the classroom -- and then realized they were all actually just imitating their kindergarten teacher.
* Held him in the middle of the night after he had another night terror, because he dreamt that the sweet guinea pig that he had petted earlier in the day was now trying to eat his feet.
* Drove him all the way back and forth to UCLA's Pediatric Neurology Department to obtain a second opinion, in order to finally convince his local neurologist that he needed an MRI of his brain to rule out a suspected condition.
* Spent endless hours, days, months and money taking him to specialists and therapists, attending out of state autism seminars, ordering online gluten and dairy free products because there was very little local options, and researching and then purchasing a multitude of various natural supplements in order to avoid putting him on medicine, AND
* Felt jealous of other families whose days and nights weren't consumed with autism.
I learned about HOPE, ANSWERS, TRIUMPHS, ACCEPTANCE, LAUGHTER AND FRIENDSHIPS, as I . . .
* Watched him form (which would become lifelong) friendships with other children who he met during his weekly therapists' appointments.
* Listened to him read out loud his first of many "I am Sam," books.
* Drove him daily to a wonderful, newly-discovered, private special needs school where he would be totally understood and accepted.
* Saw him smile and laugh as he attempted to play and interact somewhat successfully with his new friends on the playground.
* Held him in my arms as we playfully danced along with his cousin Autumn to their grandpap's polka music.
* Spent quality time at therapists' offices as they provided me with many tools and resources to be able to help my son, AND
* Felt happy that I met a group of moms with whom John Matthew and I could spend time, and I didn't have to apologize for or explain autism-related behaviors because they already understood.
As I reflect upon this specific time in our lives when we were first introduced to the autism world, I realize that the life lessons we learned during John Matthew's kindergarten days helped to define who we have become as individuals and as a family.