Welcome! I'm Darlene and I'm an autism and wellness advocate. I love inspiring others to dream and create a life they truly love. I'm so glad you're here! Have fun visiting the site and come chat me up on Insta.
When I got stuck and took a break from writing, I had no idea that my return would be amidst a time like in this world. I could have never imagined that it would take me a year to get to this place, and during a global pandemic no less.
I was stuck on a piece that was going to be about the struggle for my autistic daughter, starting middle school, and the struggle for me being in “mid-life”. That story will have its time and place. Tonight, on this last day of autism awareness month, I want to make sure that a few more important things are not left unsaid.
We’re all stuck in some way right now. Stuck at home, stuck in a rut, or maybe stuck in our thoughts. This situation has taken a toll on every single one of us, whether it’s physically, mentally, or spiritually. Those on the frontline have been especially affected. Then there are those who have been sick, the many who have died, and the people who have lost loved ones, who feel the pain and reality of what this time in our world has been. People are suffering in one way or another.
Pain and Joy
We all have pain and challenges we endure in this life. The truth is, we would never experience true love and joy without them. We have to accept that truth. It’s God given. The mere presence of pain is in order to give rise to joy.
Some of my greatest challenges and pain in my life have come from our journey with autism. They’ve come from trying to understand and accept my child’s autism as a part of her, while thinking it’s something that we could make fade away. Some of the times I have suffered the most have been not truly seeing her in all her beauty and all she has to offer this world. It’s been fighting what I’ve not understood and allowing myself to feel like I have control, when I don’t. But that pain has propelled me into some of my life’s greatest joys as I’ve watched her grow, advocate, positively impact others, accomplish amazing things and just plain shine!
A Deeper Understanding
The pain we are going through now is temporary, although it feels like forever. It does good, although we can’t see it in the moment. We can learn so much because of it and inevitably that suffering takes us to a place where we become more enlightened and gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of things. Maybe we need to bring ourselves closer to God, maybe we need to realize the temporary nature of this world and the things in it, or maybe it’s as simple as being more grateful for what we have or the life we’re living.
If you’re me, (and I know many of you can relate) maybe it’s learning to accept what is our current life situation, to accept your autistic daughter fully for the gifts she brings to this world, to let go of the anxiety for the future, and to give yourself the same grace that is given to you freely, especially when you realize you’ve got a lot of things wrong.
True Autism Acceptance
Pain and suffering leads us to a place of appreciation, but we first have to accept it. I was recently inspired by the presenters in a conference I participated in. Make sure you go to Autism Level Up to learn more about these wonderful educators. It’s changing my life and my perception of my daughter as an autistic individual. I realized through their help and resources how much I still don’t know and will never know about my daughter’s experience as an autistic person.
So now that I have accepted what I don’t know and all of the hard things that go along with that, I need to move toward really appreciating her challenges, strengths and all of her differences so that I can better support her and others. That starts with really listening to her and other autistic individuals more, trying harder to understand what it’s like for her and all of them, and giving her a voice here on this blog. I want her to tell her story and I want to be able to support and empower her in that.
From Struggle to Strength
When my father passed away almost 14 years ago, I read a book called “On Death and Dying” by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It made such a difference for me as I went through my grieving process. She said “The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”
We’ve all known pain of some sort. Life can be a beautiful disaster at times and we are all formed more beautiful from the pain we endure. That is more evident now than it has ever been. On the other side of all that pain is joy. We may not see that now, but if we can try to accept our pain and that it’s leading us to a deeper growth than we can possibly imagine, we will see the light some day. Just give yourself a little grace in the waiting.
Autism Acceptance Month
Now that this April is over, if you think you’ve truly accepted autistic people, think again. Once you know for sure what you will never know, move on to appreciating all that autistic individuals bless the world with. I know it can be so challenging for parents with children on the spectrum. Accepting doesn’t mean you’re not in pain nor does it take it away. And if you’re hurting right now, for whatever reason, know that your pain will someday pass. Remember joy will rise and you will have lots and lots of grace to get you through until it does.
Growing up we always had a dog in my family. They were our family members. Our dogs gave us so much unconditional love. I believe having and loving them helped us to learn a little bit about caring for others, especially those who are most vulnerable. Dog therapy is a good thing for everyone.
I’m the only one in our family of four who has had pets. I know how much hard work they were for my parents. I am aware of all the costs associated with them. As a child, I experienced the heartbreak of losing a few doggie pals. But at the same time, I know how much joy they can bring and the positive impact they can have on a family.
Our daughter is getting older now, and her needs are changing. In some ways it’s gotten a little easier, but in other ways, it’s much harder. Autism is crazy like that. I remember someone liking it to that wacka-mole game at carnivals. Just when you seem to get a handle on one issue, another pops up. Some of the challenges are always there and some of them they may progress past. It just depends on the kid and where they may be on the spectrum. Changes in our children sometimes bring changes in the therapies they need.
Many people look at our daughter and assume she’s not struggling with anything. But aren’t we all? Are all challenges visible? I don’t think so. You may not see a girl that has spent years in ABA and other therapies, who has been able to learn and grow a lot. It took a lot of hard work for her to get to where she is now. Sometimes you can have all of the hard work in the world and it may have little to no effect on a child. I wish I knew why she progressed so much and others don’t. But there is and will always be challenges for her, that’s just par for the course.
Right now, a lot of her needs as far as support goes are social, emotional, sensory, and some behavioral. Also, let’s not forget I have a pre-teen, so need I say more? I’ve taken on the role of primary therapist in our family because, well….it’s just easier than dealing with insurance and paying for new evaluations. I’ve seen how much being around animals like horses has helped our daughter. Dogs are known to be very therapeutic for people with all kind of disabilities. I knew dog therapy was just what she needed. We didn’t need a service dog and we couldn’t afford an actual therapy dog for our child with autism. But I knew that a dog would provide a lot of support for her and everything she’s going through. She needed dog therapy in her life.
The Puppy Search
Once I got my husband on board for this addition to our family, the search began. I searched for a rescue for several years. We needed one that was at least semi hypoallergenic, so that made things a lot tougher. If you’ve ever looked into adopting, you know how rare it is for one of those kinds of breeds to become available. I would spend hours searching on the internet. After a while, I would get frustrated and give up. It felt like it was never going to happen.
A Little Miracle
Then last fall, I decided to give my search some effort again. I was hoping there was a rescue center somewhere that I hadn’t heard of. So in a last ditch effort, I called on my facebook friends for recommendations. Lots of people listed places to try, but I still came up empty handed. It was the end of the line. I was pretty much done trying to look for our family dog. If it ever happened, it would basically be a miracle that just presented itself.
And that’s exactly what happened! Never underestimate the power of social media! A friend that hadn’t commented on my post remembered we were looking for a dog. She happen to see another friend post about their daughter wanting to give a dog to someone. The family has a son with autism. They got him a dog and it made a huge difference. As part of his sister’s Bat Mitzvah, she wanted to raise money for another child with autism to have a dog. My friend told them our family had been looking for a dog and suggested us. It looked like a furry family member and dog therapy was in our future!
Meeting Our Puppy Shiloh
The rest is history! We met the family and then we took a drive up to Orlando to meet our puppy. Right away I could see the sparkle in my daughter’s eyes and how much joy the excitement of getting a dog was bringing her. I was surprised how she let all the puppies climb all over her. My husband, who was never a dog person, completely fell in love hook, line, and sinker. But the one that actually picked out our puppy was my son. He was a bit shy about it all and when one of the excited puppies came to sit in his lap, that was it. Our Shiloh was chosen!
I picked the name because it is a town in ancient Israel mentioned in the Bible, but it also means “the peaceful one.” If you haven’t read the blog before, I’m big on all the ways I’ve tried to find peace as a mom of a child with autism. I knew this dog would bring us all some much needed stillness, as crazy as that sounds. It was one of the happiest days for our family when we got to pick him up and bring him home.
Shiloh is a mini australian labradoodle and he has the sweetest disposition. He’s still hyper, like most puppies, but he’s able to be chill a lot too. He’s learning so quickly and is very smart. Shiloh is really the best dog we could have asked for!
The Doggie Difference
Shiloh has been such a blessing to our family. Don’t get me wrong, dogs are a lot of work. It’s basically been like having a newborn all over again, but it’s been worth every second. Every time I see my daughter holding him and playing with him, I’m amazed. I was told so many times that dog therapy would help and it’s so true! I remember when she was very nervous around dogs, especially the bigger ones. She hated when they would jump on her. The barking bothers her, but he’s not going to be the world’s best guard dog, so we may be ok there. She has adapted really well to the dog and has really taken to the responsibility of having him. Every day after school she takes him out with her brother, and picks up his business. That’s huge!
The unconditional love this dog has given all of us has been so wonderful. My son has a new little friend that he loves spending time with. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. Our daughter is really doing well and the dog provides a lot of support to her emotionally and socially. If she’s having a tough time, spending some time with Shiloh really helps. A lot of her friends have pets, so it’s been a great conversation piece for her and a way to bridge one little gap socially. And my husband, well, let’s just say he fell the hardest and loves this little guy.
Shiloh coming into our life was truly a little miracle and we are so grateful to the family that helped make our little dream a reality. He has already made such a huge difference in our family life and has had such a positive impact on both of our children. If you don’t have a pet and have a child with autism, I highly recommend looking into it. Dog therapy is a real thing. It really is helping our daughter in so many ways and giving us all a little more peace. That’s something we can never have too much of.
Once upon a time, I walked my daughter into her kindergarten classroom. I was so excited for her to start school, learn a lot, and grow. There were a lot of things I was concerned about. But for the most part I felt so much joy for her and all she was going to experience in the next six years.
Now she is about to graduate from fifth grade and my emotions are all over the place. Much like autism, it’s a roller coaster that never seems to end. So many ups and downs. There are so many successes to celebrate, and a million fears to dwell on. Some days, well most days, I’m completely at a loss for how to navigate it all.
In The Struggle
On a regular day, it’s hard to keep things in perspective in this fast paced, complicated, and sometimes terrifying world. If you watch the news for two seconds, it’s easy to contemplate living in a bubble. Everyone is running around trying to accomplish more and do do do all day. There’s not enough time for being still and present. In many ways, we have lost the beauty of a simple life because we have added so much to it that isn’t necessary. You add autism to the mix of an already insanely busy schedule and it can definitely cause you to lose site of what’s important. It can also have you wondering if you’re coming or going at times.
Let me give you a prime example. This week I’ve poured creamer on my pancakes, got into the shower with my eyeglasses on, and I’ve literally thought it was Wednesday three times. Maybe all this emotion and overwhelm is partly because I’m in my 40’s? But the more we talk about fifth grade ending and the more middle school comes up in conversation, the more I seem to be collectively losing my grip on things. I’m crying at the drop of a hat. I mean, just now I starting tearing up at a Meatloaf song, so what gives? I’m jumping way ahead of myself and creating all types of scenarios that are not likely to happen. I cannot conceive of letting go and letting her move on to this next phase.
Hard Work Can Pay Off
But I have to. Because she’s ready, even if I’m not. She is as prepared as she possibly can be, even if I’m at a loss. I’m struggling big time. It’s probably always going to be tough letting her grow, but this is what we wanted. This is what we hoped for when we immersed ourselves in research and resources, made countless sacrifices, put her into a ton of daily therapies we couldn’t afford, and challenged her to be all she was meant to be. Now we are starting to see all the things she’s really great at. We’re focusing more on that, and less on what she struggles with. We’ve been watching her grow into this incredible individual, an amazing person that we hope everyone will accept for all that she is.
Growing Up Fast
There will always be challenges. Struggle is a part of life for all of us. There’s no avoiding that. But having those struggles has made us truly appreciate the victories. If we focus more on her strengths and support her where her weaknesses are, she will continue to grow in all areas. This is a girl who went from not being able to put a sentence together eight years ago, to advocating for herself in her own words. The joy we have seeing how far she’s come through all those obstacles is just indescribable.
The other day she went in front of her elementary school on the morning news to talk about autism and share how she hopes all people on the spectrum, and people with any differences, will be accepted for who they are. She said they can do anything they put their mind to. I love her positive outlook on things. To say she has blown me away with the confidence she has built up is an understatement. I am so proud that she shares her autism openly. I feel she will truly make a difference in this world by doing so.
Becoming an Advocate
Her message is important as a child with autism. She understands that the spectrum is vast and that every single person on it has different challenges and needs different amounts of support. She knows very well that there are many who have difficult struggles that she doesn’t have, struggles that people aren’t comfortable with hearing about or seeing, but that need to be seen and understood. Autism has many faces and challenges. It’s so important for everyone to learn that there are many people like her, who (as we explained it to her for the last few years) have brains that work a bit differently. We need all kinds of minds in this world.
Once upon a time, I had a little girl just three years old, who was diagnosed with autism. Now she is eleven and entering middle school. She’s changing how people see autism, one heart at a time. She’s showing people what it means to be fully included and that’s something we want for all people on the spectrum. I don’t want to let her go and I’m afraid of all the ignorance she may encounter. There’s so many scary things to worry about. I’m struggling, and I probably always will to some degree. But she is thriving, challenges and all. She’s making a difference in her own little way and I can’t wait to see all the wonderful things she will accomplish.
Joy Over Struggle
So I’m going to try to not let any amount of struggle outweigh the happiness her achievement brings or let it take away the immense pride I feel for all the hard work she’s put in all these years. I won’t let the negative people, who try to lessen what she has overcome, ruin this moment. They can’t steal the joy that comes from the utter awe I feel for the way she has handled all the heartache and troubles along the way. She made it this far and she can do it again.
Yes, once upon a time, I had a dream for my little daughter. I had a dream that she would go to school and some day move on from kindergarten. That dream came true and then some. Here’s to my soon to be middle schooler. May you make waves, may you change hearts, may you enlighten minds, and may you achieve all your dreams. And when you struggle along the way, just know mom is struggling too, and it’s ok. That will just make the triumphs that much sweeter for us both.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about all the therapies our child has had over the years. Our kids with autism have to put in a lot of time and effort into the work. They will spend hours learning about how to speak, hold conversations, or appropriately engage people. Then there are the days and days of practicing social skills, learning how to decipher body language, as well as how to express feelings. Yet the everyday person won’t bother themselves with those kind of things. They won’t take the time to improve those skills or make it a priority. People would rather ignore each other than take the time or do the work to communicate. Conducting themselves appropriately socially is not on the radar of most people. More and more, I see that every single person in this world could use some regular therapy.
Why We All Need Therapy
Maybe people just weren’t taught these basic but necessary skills as children because it wasn’t deemed necessary for a typical person as it is necessary for someone with autism. I’m sure that’s part of it. It could also be that it’s just easier to avoid things rather than confronting them. Some of it is definitely a lack of conscience and a lack of knowing how to live life actively trying to do good every moment. It doesn’t seem like it’s a priority to teach our children to be kind anymore, and if we’re not being kind ourselves, that’s the example they are mirroring. I talk about this in another post I did years ago on kindness.Whatever the reason, people just don’t have the skills to talk to each other anymore nor the desire to love on each other.
I’ve been guilty of it too. Sometimes it’s just easier to not rock the boat. Many times it’s just better to avoid the situation or the person. But I know better, and because of my beliefs, I know the right way to handle these things. Stubbornness can get in the way. Pretending there isn’t a problem is definitely the wrong way to handle it. Over the years my daughter has had to develop these social and communication skills. She’s also learned the most important life skill – that you treat people with love, even if they don’t love on you back. Between everything we’ve learned through her therapies over the last eight years and what I’ve learned personally in therapy, I realized something. It’s not just kids like my daughter that could use speech, communication, and social skills training. It’s not just people like me who need therapy from the struggle with anxiety or the grief of loss. We all need it!
The Therapy of Being and Doing Good
Not necessarily just speech therapy or psychotherapy, although those couldn’t hurt the average person. All therapies can be helpful in some way. There are so many ways we could improve how we socialize and interact with others. I’m not suggesting that any of them truly provide the fix we need, except for maybe one. The kind that regularly nudges you to look within and reminds you of what is right. What about the kind of therapy that actually drives you to be the best human you can be? I guess I’m basically referring to feeding your faith as a “therapy”. If you believe and want to live a life that mirrors that belief, you are constantly relying on that faith in all that you do.
Whether you believe in God or not, you should have the inherent desire to do right and be good. Sure, it isn’t the case with everyone, but I think most people want to be good human beings. Faith makes it your central point, your one and only mission in this life. That kind of therapy pushes you to be your best self, be kind, and communicate with others in a loving and appropriate way. It’s the therapy of living a purpose full life and that is what we are all called to do.
Is it Worth the Struggle?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Sometimes people just don’t seem worth the headache or the heartache. Some of them even seem like they don’t want to be loved. Those are the ones you have to reach out to even more. That is the type of person you still have to engage with and be kind to. We’re suppose to love our enemies right? It may be easier to pretend they don’t exist, but it isn’t right to ignore them and it makes you a person who is living in anger, not in love. We were created to love one another, not hate each other, foster anger and resentment, or be cruel. None of that is what our hearts tell us to do. But we have the free will to make choices and many times, we choose poorly. We’re called to love all people in this life even if we don’t always like them.
I still remember the time before my daughter was diagnosed with autism. Many parents were eager to tell us us to take her to therapy, not knowing that we were already neck deep in trying to figure out what her needs were. It was a hard pill to swallow. But I knew that they, like most people, spend their time suggesting how others can fix their supposed flaws or deal with their problems. These are the same people that don’t have the time to examine their own conscience and motives. Maybe then they would see that their approach is less than loving. They weren’t out to help or support, but rather to show how someone didn’t fit in and offer their opinion on how to rectify the situation.
Therapy For Life
Therapy isn’t a permanent fix. It’s a way of life. It helps to heal and gives you programs, systems, and tools to handle things. Therapy is a process and you can’t avoid any step. You have to put what you’ve learned into practice daily. Most people have trouble doing anything daily. But it’s especially hard to look into yourself regularly. It’s difficult to examine your conscience daily because you may see something you don’t like. That might push you to change, and change can be hard. Maybe your therapy can’t be the kind that helps you communicate better or engage appropriately with people. But there is no reason why you can’t employ that faith therapy every single day. It’s with that guiding force that we can be better and do better.
That’s the the therapy that we all need, that kind that helps us change a little bit every day, for the better. Do the whole world a favor and sign yourself up for that.
My friend wrote a poem call The Mosaic that she shared with me. I included it at the bottom of this post for your reading pleaseure. It’s really beautiful and it got me thinking about how different mosaics are from puzzles. A puzzle piece is the universal symbol of autism. But it doesn’t seem to fully describe the neurological disorder completely. I mean, does autism fit together perfectly like a puzzle? Or is it more of a mosaic, made up of jagged, hard to fit pieces? Maybe both of them are sort of metaphors for the difficult and the beautiful parts of autism.
It’s Not All Struggle
Now that I mentioned beautiful in the same sentence as autism, I’m sure to get some eye rolls from well meaning people. Because as caregivers, autism and special needs in general can be extremely hard to deal with. But the truth is, there is a lot of beautiful in autism. It’s if you choose to see it. It doesn’t take away from the hard, painful, and sad parts of raising a child with special needs to acknowledge it. You can have challenges and still take notice of the beauty they bring.
Please don’t confuse this with loving autism itself, or any disorder for that matter, that anyone has to live with. We love our daughter, not the disorder or the struggle it comes with. But in the struggle, we’ve learned so much and I feel it has made us all better people. We’re grateful for it because it has made us so much more appreciative of the little things that many others take for granted.
This is just one example, but many parents hear their child say I love you early on and just expect for that to occur. They get use to hearing it regularly and it becomes less of a big deal. It was many years before our child could have any conversation, let alone express any feeling. It still doesn’t come easy all these years later. Some parents we know are still waiting to hear “I love you” from their child. Not getting to see those different milestones or hear those typical things from your child, makes every little or big thing they do achieve, something to celebrate. Everything is a big deal!
Beauty in the Struggle
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say. It’s in the struggle that we really discover and behold all the beautiful things. If everything was easy, how would we appreciate anything? Yes, the struggle sucks! There’s no way around that fact. But when we look at what they are capable of instead of what they can’t do, it’s beautiful to think of what they have overcome or struggled through to get there. If we look at the rough spots with as much beauty as what may be the smoother, easier parts, it’s easier to see that it all makes us a masterpiece.
Struggle and suffering is a part of this temporary life for everyone. None of us can avoid it. It shapes us all, just like those jagged little pieces that make up a mosaic. I’ve always been fascinated by mosaics because even though they don’t fit and they’re all so different, the pieces are all beautiful and they still come together to make a work of art. A mosaic reminds me of a child like ours. We want her to embrace the person she is and remind her that no one is a perfect fit, and that’s what makes us all beautiful.
Mosaic vs. Puzzle
Yes, autism is a puzzle because there are a lot of questions and unknowns. Until the pieces fit, they say. They refer to the puzzle piece as a missing piece to the autism puzzle. Every puzzle pieces is a little different, just like our kids. It’s no wonder that the puzzle piece is used globally as the symbol for autism.
Every child on the spectrum is so different and every parent’s experience as to how the autism was brought on, is just as different. It’s not something we have a lot of answers to. It’s frustrating for caregivers who know that autism took away so much, that in many cases, they may never get back. But even if there are still so many questions about autism, the puzzle piece symbol doesn’t seem to fit. No one has to be a piece that fits perfectly with others. We weren’t made that way. One puzzle piece can be missing and then the puzzle isn’t complete. But our kids are not a puzzle to be completed. Maybe they use this because there are questions and things that are missing neurologically? They are still whole people, created by God, with a disorder that has taken something from them.
Different is Perfect
Over the years, we’ve talked to our daughter about her autism. It’s a lot for a child to comprehend, when we ourselves don’t understand it all. But we often explain to her that her brain is just wired a bit differently than others. That her brain works in a different way. Different isn’t bad or less, it’s just different. Yes, the struggle is real, but if we can’t manage to find any blessings in any of it, we’ll miss all the beauty.
Maybe rather than suggesting autism is a puzzle that supposedly fits perfectly as things should, we should refer to it as a mosaic. A mosaic includes all the pieces. No matter their shape, color, or their sometimes jagged edges, a mosaic brings all the pieces together. They are perfectly arranged, just as God sees all his creation. That’s the kind of masterpiece we can all find beauty in.
As a stay at home mom, I live a pretty ordinary life. Now that I’m not working, I have considered it to be a bit mundane at times. It’s a simple life, even amidst the sometimes difficult road our family navigates with autism. The challenges we have are not special. I’m not doing any big things nor am I accomplishing amazing feats over here. But I am trying to live this ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
Striving For Greatness
In this age, everyone is looking to be or do the next great thing. We live in a world where the number of likes and comments determines our worth. The pictures we take are solely to show others all the great places we get to travel to, all the great food we get to eat, or the next awesome thing we’ve done or achieved. We take selfie after selfie, hoping to convince ourselves and others that we are someone to follow. And I’ve fallen trap to these false notions of greatness too. I believed I was only making a difference writing on this blog if hundreds were reading it. As a result, I don’t feel satisfied and keep striving for that misplaced sense of greatness that is an illusion.
But recently a dear friend reminded me of something so important. She made me realize that a small life like mine is exactly the kind that can make a difference. An ordinary life gives me the opportunity to do the great things God calls us to do. Because the pride that comes with social media or internet greatness might get in the way of the kind of greatness that truly matters. Staying humble and living a simple, little life, can still be extraordinary in a few very important ways.
A Very Ordinary Life
So you’re probably saying, why would anyone be happy with an ordinary life? What can you possibly accomplish? The answer is, more than you can possibly imagine! If you are living an ordinary life with extraordinary virtue, you can accomplish the most important, amazing things in this life. It’s not to say any of us are perfect at it. I for one make a boat load of mistakes. But there are three little words that make big things happen in our world…faith, hope, and love.
They’re all so important and also very necessary in life, even in the parts of life that can sometimes seem monotonous. For instance, where is the love in washing dishes, doing laundry, and cooking meals every single day? It’s hard to see it, but it’s there. These things are little and ordinary, but they are fueled by my love for my family.
It’s especially evident when you have a child with special needs. Where is the love in shuffling my kid to different activities that may be a difficult experience, trying out different therapies, exposing her to social groups that may not be welcoming, and working with her on challenging behaviors that may never change? It’s easy to love her, but hard to love others who let her down or treat her as if she is less than. How do you show love when she’s not included? If there are unfair circumstances or things that are challenging for her and our family, those are tough ones to love too. But love them all (the things and the people), we must.
Love Makes Greatness
I find that love has to basically fuel my every move. It has to be a part of all the things I do. I have to share it with every person I come in contact with. It’s not always easy (I miss the mark often). But it’s worth every effort. It’s what we are all called to do in this life. Because it’s in our persistence to love people in all the little things that we make a positive difference in our world.
And those things I mentioned in our life are all little, ordinary things. Our life has no more and no less struggle than anyone else’s. I’m not over here doing anything monumental that anyone else isn’t doing. All I can do is aspire to do all these little things in my life, with the greatest love I possibly can. That’s the greatness God wants to see in me, not some great thing I accomplish.
As Mother Theresa said, “None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” If we have faith, we know that having an extraordinary love for all the little things is where our greatness lies. It’s my hope that when things get really tough, that I will remember to love it all. I will not let the world determine what is true greatness and I will stop trying to live an extraordinary life. Because I would rather do small things with great love, then big things with no love at all.
I pray that if you’re struggling with what may be your ordinary life, that you too will discover all the ways you can live it with extraordinary virtues of faith, hope, and love. I hope the latter reminds you of where your true greatness lies. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
I never thought I would send my kids to summer camp at such a young age, let alone find an inclusive summer camp for them. As a kid, I didn’t go away during the summer until I was in high school. I see so many kids who have been going to summer camp regularly for years now and I swore I wouldn’t feel pressured to send mine. I’m not about to give up eight weeks each year of our already dwindling summers together. But now I can’t imagine our life without our one week of summer camp at Camp Southern Ground. It’s had such a positive impact on our family’s life and it’s just that special of a place.
What Makes Camp Southern Ground So Special
Camp Southern Ground is unlike any camp you have ever seen or experienced. First and foremost, it is an inclusive camp. As described on their website, the camp brings together typically developing children, children with Austism Spectrum Disorder, learning and attention issues such as ADHD, and Dyslexia, and social or emotional challenges. This is what drew our family in from the start. When you have a child on the spectrum and they have a typically developing sibling, it isn’t easy to find activities that they can participate in together, nevermind a summer camp. It’s so important that they get to experience this amazing camp together and yet, they still get plenty of time to be independent and forge their own friendships. A lot of places claim to be inclusive and miss the mark. Camp Southern Ground really shows how easy it is to put inclusion first and it exemplifies the many reasons why it is beneficial for not just our kids, but for the community.
The camp also supports, hosts and includes children of military and veteran families. During the other weeks of the year, the camp teams up with organizations like Boot Campaign and Kyle Frog Foundation to provide great programming and support for these families. While at summer camp, the kids learn how to be good patriots and participate in flag ceremonies twice a day, where they learn how to take pride in the flag and care it. Children of military families are provided with a comforting experience at camp, as many are dealing with parents having been deployed or having lost a parent in service.
Zach Brown and His Dream
Before I go on and on about how awesome Camp Southern Ground is, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the person who dreamed up this wonderful place for children of all abilities. Not only is his music literally a staple (and on replay) in our household, but the one and only Zach Brown of The Zach Brown Band is behind this magical place. He wanted to create a place that was much more than the typical camp experience and he did just that! Zach was a camper and a camp counselor himself, so he knew the importance of children being outdoors while they grow and learn from each other. We’re so thankful to Zach and his heart for our kids because this amazing place wouldn’t exist without him.
Our Family’s Experience
We had the opportunity to spend some time at camp, before and after our children’s session last summer. It was their first official summer camp since opening. Currently there are several beautiful facilities on-site with several more on the horizon. In the future, there will be a chapel, a state-of-the-art aquatic center, and a respite center. The staff is amazing and supportive of all the kids’ differences and challenges. There were behavioral experts, inclusion specialists, specialized counselors, and nurses on hand for our children. We were so impressed at the amount of support available to our daughter and how much thought and preparation had gone into serving her needs. As they build out the facilities and gain more resources, the camp will be able to serve campers with more moderate and severe challenges.
When we picked up our children on the last day, we had the opportunity to experience a meal with them. Chef Collins whipped up some of his delicious food for lunch, using produce from the camp’s garden. Right away we could see the bonds our kids had made with other children and the staff. I don’t want to give away all their secrets, so I’ll let you and your children experience the special little details for yourself. Let’s just say that they provide a really warm environment for everyone, even at meal time. The kids really enjoyed the family style setting for meals. They were so excited that they brought the ideas home with them and they’ve become a part of our daily life at home.
There were so many great activities for our kids to participate in. Our kids loved the “floating” tree house where they enjoyed music classes and jam sessions. There is also a high ropes adventure course that includes ziplines. The camp has it’s own organic gardens where the kids got to pick foods to use in culinary class. They were also able to learn about nature and history through classes like mining. Campfire time was also a favorite for both our kids. They also enjoyed playing basketball, field games, gaga ball, water games and target sports like archery and sling shots. The kids also had plenty of down time to socialize, do arts and crafts or take a yoga class.
Camp Southern Ground has a motto….Where goodness grows. It’s a concept that permeates every part of camp. It’s evident in everything the staff does for the campers and in everything they try to instill in them. They accomplish all this goodness focusing on three main goals: growing unique gifts, growing healthy bodies, and growing good communities. The kids tried new things, they were challenged to move out of their comfort zones and encouraged to discover their unique talents and gifts. They were taught to really connect with the food they eat. They spent time at the camp’s organic garden and learned where food comes from and how it fuels their bodies. The camp is a tech-free zone, so the kids focused on social interaction, making friends, and working together as a team.
On a Personal Note
As far as our own experience, it’s hard to put into words what this camp and our children’s experiences have meant to our whole family. I can tell you we have all been changed for the better in so many different ways. Our kids discovered things they love and things they are good at. We have seen how they’ve grown in confidence and in their independence. They made friends with some wonderful kids who were accepting of their differences and found their tribe of people. It’s a family atmosphere at camp and both the kids finally felt what it’s like to belong. Since camp, our kids both participate in our garden at home. They love to be in the kitchen now to plan meals, cook, set up, and clean up. They will try pretty much anything we whip up.
Something we didn’t expect was the respite it provided my husband and I. Since camp is in Georgia, we were not ready to drop off our kids for a week without being close by and didn’t want to make that long drive twice. So we stayed nearby and had our own little getaway. As a married couple and parents of a child with special needs, it’s important to have that time to ourselves. We were able to take that time because we knew our kids were well taken care of, our daughter was supported, and we knew they were both being provided with an amazing experience. It helped us to relax and gave us the opportunity to enjoy time away without them .
“Where Goodness Grows”
There are so many other little ways the kids grew that have made them into even better little people and have brought our family closer together. I wish I could write about all of them. It’s been amazing to see how much our kids have grown in goodness since camp. The fact that they have the opportunity to bring all that goodness back to their own community is just a beautiful thing. Right from the start, Camp Southern Ground’s mission of growing more goodness in the world aligned with ours to raise our kids to be good people. They understand the hard things our kids and we as parents face in this world today. Our family has struggled with bullying. Both kids (especially our special needs child) have struggled to fit in. We deal with the pressures of technology. Even just trying to teach our kids to be themselves and have their own beliefs can be tough when many follow who or what may seem popular at the moment. They’ve created a special place, like no other, that helps to combat those struggles. Camp really fosters a loving environment where our kids can grow and goodness can grow in them. As they state on their website as part of their mission, “Camp Southern Ground wants to be the place where your child can have good fun, eat good food, connect with good friends, and learn the confidence to go put more good into the world.” That’s a mission we are so proud to support!
Support Camp Southern GroundS
We our grateful that our kids will have the opportunity to attend summer camp again this year. Special thanks to Camp Director Scott Hicok, Program Director Stan Tucker, our kids’ bunk counselors, and all the staff, who made our kids’ first experience at camp so wonderful. Each and every one of them have been so supportive of us as parents and of our kids’ needs. Camp Southern Ground has become part of our family and we hope it will always be part of our summers. We’d love to keep our special place a secret and all to ourselves. But when you love something this much you can’t help but share with the world! If you are interested in finding more information about camp, please visit the Camp Southern Ground website. You can also support Camp Southern Ground by giving a donation here to help this wonderful organization and all the families they serve.
At Camp Southern Ground, they believe Love is the Remedy. Our family couldn’t agree more! These smiles say it all! If you’re looking for an inclusive, safe, supportive, loving and encouraging place where your kids can grow this summer, while having the experience of a lifetime, look no further! Camp Southern Ground is truly that magical place you’re looking for. It’s been such a blessing to our family, and we look forward to another year of our family growing in goodness because of it.
I’ve kind of dreaded writing this post. Especially because just three days ago, I posted the feature picture on this blog post. I wrote positive words and it had a go get it attitude. But today I have to let go of some of what I said and even retract a couple words. No one ever likes to be wrong and when it comes to my kids, I wish I got it right more. The truth is, my daughter is just not a girl who loves participating in sports.
My daughter has been swimming with teams for about three years now. When we discovered group organized sports weren’t her bag, we gave swimming a try. She’s always been an excellent swimmer. Since swim is more of an individual sport and encourages you to compete against yourself, it seemed like the perfect fit for her.
During her first team experience, we encountered some great coaches and some wonderful parents. But it was run by a person who was insulting to my kid and not at all accepting of differences. She progressed there and moved up in the groups, but the organization was lacking the inclusion and acceptance she deserved. She proved herself time and again, working hard every day, but they didn’t have the faith in her to allow her to grow in the sport.
Fast forward to her current swim team and it has been such a welcoming and encouraging place. She usually swims about four days a week. From the beginning, they have all been encouraging and supportive, from the owner down to her individual coach. She has grown so much in her technique and is now working on her speed. It all seemed to be going so well and I’ve been so proud of all the progress she has made.
I probably should have started by saying how excited about swimming our daughter became after watching the Olympics. It inspired her! She was determined to make it to the Olympics one day and was thrilled she had found something that fit within her interests. We were in full support of her dream and if you know her, you know there’s nothing she can’t do that she sets her mind to. Plus our kids are island babies, so they live to be in the water. Swimming seemed like her sport!
If you know anything about autism, you know change can be hard for our kiddos. They usually do well with structure and routine. That, coupled with exhaustion, hunger, and multiple emotions, can be a recipe for disaster for my girl. It must have been that perfect storm because three days ago at practice, all those things were at play. Her coach was absent, which had happened the day before too. But then there was a shortage of coaches and she was lumped into a higher group. Almost daily, she swims for an hour and a half straight, without any real break. Now that was happening along with a lot of additional laps, a coach’s style she wasn’t use to, and just plain fatigue. We eat early around here, so she finishes practice and is ravenous. I should have seen it was the beginning of the end.
She made it through the whole practice without complaining, to her credit. I actually didn’t even see it coming, but she finished and walked right over to me and started balling. In an instant, I knew what was happening. My child was a little broken. Her dreams of being a swimmer were over. I could tell she was beyond done. She realized that although she likes swimming a lot and is actually really great at it, it’s not for her.
Why didn’t I see it sooner? I was wrong to have her in something with such intense practices every single day. It’s not for her. I was wrong to think she had to be in a sport to be active. We can do fun things and be active together. I was wrong not to listen that she was tired. I should have paid more attention to what she really loves doing, not just what she likes. Many times I saw kids of our friends competing in sports and thought she needed to too. She was missing out. The truth is she detests competing unless it’s beating the pants off of you in a game of chess. Just because she’s good at something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for her in the long run. She’s just not a sports girl and that’s totally fine by me.
I think I got a little caught up in what always seems like the glorification of busy that our society is so wrapped up in. I forgot about trying to enjoy a more simple life. It’s always been so frustrating to me that my kids could never just hang out and play with their friends because the kids are always so scheduled. Now, in my worry of what other people might think about our less than busy schedule, I was doing the same thing. I was in activities and busy as a kid. But I had down time. I had the freedom to play and discover my talents and interests. My parents never pushed me to do anything I didn’t truly love. I led the way as far as what I wanted to participate in and our daughter is just as much if not more the leader that I was.
My daughter’s childhood is too precious to spend hours of it pushing her to do something that’s not for her. She has everything she needs and what she doesn’t need is more pressure. In a world where she doesn’t feel like she has control of much, free time gives her a sense of control that will help foster her interests more than an activity that is slowly taking the wind out of her sails. Activities are great and they have wonderful benefits. But I don’t want busyness and over scheduling to become something we are proud of. I don’t want it to be more of a priority than spending time with each other or just having the chance to just be a kid.
Time is already going by so fast as we raise our children. I won’t have anymore of it filled with things that aren’t things we love. So my kid doesn’t do sports. Big deal. She’s so amazing in so many other ways that are way more important. Though I cheered her on daily from the bleachers and enjoyed watching her swim, I won’t miss the sometimes ten hours a week we spent in and by the pool. That time will be filled with being a kid, pursuing our interests, and going after all those other big dreams.
I know that whatever she will do and be one day has already been laid out for her. It’s what she was created for. She was always going be that thing and this amazing person, no matter what I do or what I try to involve her in. I just need to give her the time and space to enjoy the things she loves and support her in her interests. The rest will fall into place. So thanks for the lessons swimming. After this month, we’re moving on to pursue our passions. No sports for this girl. She loves watching them and she is an avid baseball fan that will blow your mind with statistics. But she will be sharing her talents in other areas and changing the world in lots of other ways. You’ll just have to watch and see what’s next.
It’s New Year’s Eve. I can’t even believe the year has flown by the way it has. A new year approaching always causes you to think a lot and in my case, write a lot. I’m sitting in my dark living room, nursing a horrible sinus headache and an annoying ear pain by the glow of my Christmas tree. It’s not the way I’d like to start ringing in the new year, but sometimes you just have to sit still in whatever moment has presented itself. So I’m using the time to think about the year that has passed. I’m thinking about where I’ve been and where I need to grow. A new year always holds so much promise and hope, but not without us committing to taking some kind of action.
Everyone is always so busy making resolutions and plans for the next year. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for reflection. But I can’t help but think about all the lessons learned this past year. It’s all been part of what got me here, to this moment. Some good, some not so good. None of it by accident. It’s all been in preparation for whatever is to come. Now that I’m older, I have so much more gratitude for the journey itself.
That gratitude has helped me to focus more on my every action, so that I do my best to live each moment in service of others. It’s really helped me to spend more time reflecting on the most important purpose we have in this world. That is to love others. So much more simple than we make it out to be. Although sometimes, loving people who are hard to love is just that…so very hard. But it’s still what defines us and what we were created for. Even so, loving doesn’t mean we have to accept every injustice or never say no. It definitely doesn’t mean we should let others take advantage of us. It means we forgive and accept what is.
Who doesn’t want more love and forgiveness in a new year? It’s how we navigate this human life, as every single one of us makes mistakes. Nouns like these are great to want more of in a new year. But for years now, I have been picking a word or words that define a characteristic I want or want more of. They’ve covered Peace to Courage, and everything in between. All of them have been nouns, but not one of them has taken action. They have been quite inspiring over the years. I’ve definitely gained many of those attributes and grown in many of those areas. But this year I realized what I need more of, requires me to take a specific action in every moment. What I need to do is Discern.
It occurs to me that my daughter, who has special needs, taught me a lot about this, although she doesn’t know it. She’s made me a bit of a detective. In most every interaction I have with her, I am trying to figure out if I’m dealing with something that is typical of a child her age or if it’s something that is a part of her autism. Discern means to distinguish someone or something with difficulty by sight or with other senses; to perceive or recognize something. Most of the time and after many years of experience, I’m spot on in my detection, but there are those times when I realize I’ve got it all wrong.
That is just one area in my life that I have to recognize differences daily. But what about every other moment? I’ve learned that while I am an ongoing investigator in the world of autism, I’m not choosing to discern in the way God asks me to in every moment and part of my life. When we discern, we are trying to discover God’s call for us. We are actively following the path he lays out for us. Though I try to listen, a lot of the time I feel I know better. My experiences have shown me otherwise. I’m reminded by Romans 12:2 that he always knows best. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This last year I have not discerned as I should. Actually, I’ve rarely asked God what he wants me to do. Instead I’ve made my own calls and assumed that I should stay stuck in whatever situation or relationship I was struggling with. There were things and people no longer meant for me, but I knew better. Our society has so many outside pressures. It’s a me first world, that is hyper-focused on self-fulfillment. I could have asked what he wanted for me and tried to discern between right and wrong. But instead, I wasted valuable time deceiving myself that I’m in control and I know best.
Of course, 2018 was chock full of beautiful moments and happy experiences, along with a lot of difficult situations and sad times. There is never a year that isn’t and I’m so grateful for all of it. But to truly discern, there are lots of little actions I should be taking that would significantly diminish the struggle. Life isn’t without hard times, but the amount of time we take struggling is optional. So to struggle less and discern more, I hope to do these things more:
Be conscious of past experiences
Pray more and ask for guidance
Be open to God’s will and plan for me
Know and use my gifts and talents
Know my worth and where it lies
Listen to my heart and what I’m called to do
Every decision calls us to discern. Then, if we feel at peace with our choice and have confirmation in that choice, we know it was the right one. We each are called for something and discerning is what helps us discover what that call is. We all have a personal vocation, and not all of them are particular professions or calls to religious life. But if taking time to discern means more of a religious life, then sign me up! If you need guidance in your life and don’t want to do it alone, than discern may need to be your word too.
So to all of those things, people, and situations I’m leaving in this past year, I wish you well. While you weren’t part of my purpose, even though I was dead set on you being a part of it, you taught me a lot. For that I’m grateful because I’ve still grown tremendously. I know better now. When you know better, you can be and do better. Whether you’re taking on a word, a resolution, or an action in this new year, I hope you’ll consider that no matter what you believe, your’e not alone and cant do this life alone. If you choose to discern, I can tell you it will be life changing. I’ve seen how it changes things through my own experiences and through others’ experiences. That’s why I’m committing to do it regularly in the new year.
And whether you believe or not, I hope that the words below in Proverbs 3:1-6 will help to inspire you to think more about your every action in this life. Because our actions affect our life path and the path of the lives of those around us. So isn’t that worth a little time to discern and try to choose the path we’re called to? If my actions can help to heal the world and transform it for the better, I want to take that time to Discern and choose wisely, with guidance. After all, we’re here to love each other and why not live every action as if we truly do.
“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Time goes by so fast, even at Christmas. But this year the Advent season and Christmas day itself went by so slowly. Actually, we are just at the beginning of Christmas, and there’s much more to enjoy. Every day we have enjoyed celebrating the season and have spent time in reflection. On Christmas day, the kids seemed to take their time and really enjoy their presents. It was so refreshing. Normally they’re ripping through it all in a split second. In years past, it has all gone by in a flash. But time stood still for a little bit this Christmas.
I think the kids have matured a lot and are understanding what this whole time of the year is truly about. And yet, I realized this year that while our kids keep growing taller and getting older, they’re still little and young at heart. They still believe in the magic of the holiday. They’re growing up but still childlike in their excitement and joy of the season. I saw them as my babies again, with an innocence that this world can’t take away. For a minute, you think, nothing and no one could ever steal their joy. It’s like that part of my daughter’s autism that keeps her blissfully unaware of the bad and constantly seeking all the good.
That’s part of the beauty of Christmas. You forget for a moment how the world is in such turmoil right now. It brings a certain peace, joy, love and hope like no other time of the year. At a time when there is so much chaos, Christmas reminds us what our world truly needs. There are so many lessons in it. The story itself shapes the very foundation and purpose of our lives. It takes us back to a simpler time in this world. A time when the worries were a little less and all people really needed was love and the basic necessities.
I wish I could freeze this moment, this Christmas. It is such a special time for our children. I’ve seen a change in both of them, but especially our daughter. The kids seem to be realizing they don’t need all the stuff. They just want to be surrounded by people who love them. Christmas is a time when that is exactly the case. Family and friends abound and they revel in the time spent with them. Recently, they’ve discovered that some people may not value them as they should. They have felt disregarded and they know the hurt it causes. I know they have questioned why they keep holding onto their good morals and principles in the face of pain. But they have come to understand that their worth is not found in those people or in any things. Christmas reminds them of that.
It’s just the fourth day of Christmas. We still have eight days to go. I hope we can take in all the moments and just be still sometimes during the rest of the season. It’s so nice to see them feel loved and safe within these walls and in our little bubble. There’s no denying our kids will keep growing and time will keep passing. But at least this Christmas, time stood still. This Christmas, my kids still feel the love, peace, joy and hope of the season in their hearts. At least this year, my littles are still littles, and they’re still keeping all the true magic alive.