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What I Learned About Life From Raising an Autistic Child

Photograph by ThinkStock

It took me 15 years to obtain a bachelor's degree. During that time, I attended four colleges, held 12 different jobs, got married and had a child. I watched classmates younger than me graduate before I did. I watched them start their careers while I felt stuck in mine. I often wondered what was the point. I used to be embarrassed that it took me so long to achieve something many do in four years.

As I graduated college, my son Norrin was diagnosed with autism. At two years old, he couldn't speak, point a finger, clap or engage in pretend play. As I walked in my cap and gown to pomp and circumstance–all I could think about was Norrin and the 20 page-long evaluation of milestones he had yet to meet. I wondered if he would he ever meet them? And when. Whether it came to my life or Norrin's, I was always consumed with the when.

That fall I started graduate school. I was over 30 years old and a special needs mom who worked full-time outside of the home. After that first semester, I decided to take a break; the pressure of it all was too much. I joked that it would take another 15 years to graduate. In the months that followed, my family altered their lives to accommodate all of Norrin's therapies.

Still wearing diapers, I put Norrin on a school bus to a special needs preschool. And after school there were more therapies; five, sometimes six days a week, two or more hours a day of services at home. Norrin worked harder than other kid his age I knew. He was always working toward something that came so easily to his peers, such as pointing his finger or playing a game of head, shoulders, knees and toes.

I will never forget the moment when Norrin said his first word, jumped for the very first time or played a game of hide and seek. He did all of these things months after his peers. And with each milestone he reached, we celebrated. Our celebrations are often the things many parents take for granted. We celebrate because we know all the time that's been put into achieving each goal. There is no small feat in our home.

It's been almost six years since the diagnosis. We've had several therapists in and out of our home. Norrin's attended three different schools. Being a special-needs parent there are always forms to fill out, appointments to schedule and therapies to try. There have been no quick fixes. Everything we've done has been trial and error. Raising a special needs child has tested my patience and my perseverance.

And the when stopped mattering.

Last spring–20 years after I graduated high school and five years after Norrin was diagnosed–I graduated with a master's degree in Fine Arts. Many of the classmates I started with had long-since graduated and moved on in their careers, pursuing their dreams. There was a time when this would have bothered me. Norrin has taught me to let go of milestone schedules. The only timetable we need to live by, the only one that truly matters, is our own.

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