Helping Our Children Find Their Own Path
By Dr. Jennifer Palmiotto
It’s time to let my babies travel the path. They are ready for No Surf. You see, the beach also called Nobes is a little local’s gem of Point Loma, not just because it is a secret beach, but because to land your toes in the sand requires navigation down a cliff; Sunset Cliffs to be exact. At the top of Nobes, beach goers notice those that those that have already made it to their destination languishing in the sun or waiting for that next set so that they can ride that relaxed summer wave that makes surfing look deceptively simple. To get there, one must choose a path. For first timers, there is no easy road, no assertive arrow that indicates “this way,” and no certainty of which path is meant for you. There are so many different trials, so many real dangers. I’ve found my trail, but now it’s time for my children to do the same. They will need to find their own footing.
I’m their mother. I want certainty. I want to know that they will make it safely down the trail to the soft sand. I want to know that I’ve prepared them for this journey and that they are ready. This moment, I clutch their hands, ready and unready to help them take their journey.
As parents, our real parenting wish is to help our children live a meaningful life and to be able to tolerate the difficulties in their way. We’ve walked our own path, we have created our own meaning, but to help our children do the same is often daunting, as treacherous as this trail. Fear can swell.
On this warm spring day worry fills my heart; I worry that they will fail, that I will fail to provide them with clarity for their journey. I worry that the paths have changed so much since I traveled that I won’t remember how to do it, that my wisdom has become irrelevant. Life is so much like this path, this moment. My clinical path has been in guiding parents raising autistic children and in this work I’ve discovered a few things that seem to work in helping children create meaningful lives on our very different paths.
Watching Others Works
So often, parenting a child on the spectrum can bring up uncertainties and worries. Even though your family, your child, your path is uniquely yours; we can still leverage the wisdoms of others. Finding trusted guides can be an essential when navigating a cliff and life.
On this beautiful Nobes Day, I took an observer role and I watched other people work their way to the beach, studying their footwork, noticing how they steady themselves in a moment of uncertainty. Noticing where they paused. In this, my fears dissipated.
We always have the ability to potentiate the wisdoms of those that that gone before us. The path may be unclear for you, parent of an autistic child, but there are people that have gone before your child, traveling their own path, and found their own way. I’ve found tremendous value in discovering the wisdoms of autistic mentors. This value is at the core of Love & Autism, our annual conference, and this year that room will be filled with wisdom.
Maybe your family’s path can be influenced by Amy Sequenzia, unafraid and bold, creating safety in discussions about the disability aspects of autism. She has a clear call to action that she is not you or your expectations; rather that she will define her own life by her own terms. Maybe studying David Finch’s deliberate yet delightful road to self-discovery helps you find your footing. Blazing her own trail, Dena Gasner, (a self-proclaimed over-sharer) might invite you to discard other people’s prescription for living and carve out a unique foothold. Maybe Kassiane Sibley will catch your eye. A woman while in her twenties contributed to the neurodiversity movement in creating the term “neurodivergent,” a beautifully important term to describe brains who work in significantly different ways than societal standards. Each of us has our own path to navigate and mentoring under someone more traveled created confidence, competence and hope.
Finding Your Own Way Matters
We all have the experience where we have heard a “should” message. Sometimes these are well-intentioned yet so often those “should” messages land on us like judgement. This is a common occurrence within our autism community. What works better for me, is to acknowledge that I and you have our own paths and finding a way that fits for each of us.
So my children and I linger at the top, I noticing the paths of others, but also recognizing we each will have to make it down in our own way. Some go shoeless holding surfboards and coolers, while others remove their sunglasses and keep both hands free. Each at their own speed. People seem to bomb down the side of the cliff kicking up that reddish dirt that clings to the feet. That won’t be me. My path will be exact, my guidance to my children will be slow and thoughtful. Each foot careful. Each step partially planned. My children notice my deliberateness and slow their own bodies, matching me. Even in their attempts to mirror me, they are uniquely their own. Oli’s body is more fluid than mine, Grace steps with the grace that she carries through life. We all deserve to discover our own paths. My children and yours.
So, how do we help our children discover their own way? How do we allow our children, who are not us or anybody else, permission to live exactly in their own pace, their own style, their own unique journey. First, I think we create a culture where talking your own path is appreciated. Simply put, this may be by discarding the word “should.” We may stop the overt and covert comparisons to others. This may be in our own lives or in the parenting of our children.
As a mom and a clinician, I’m growing in this right now. I’m evolving in putting the “should” of life aside. In fact, even how I’ve structured our conference is vastly different than last year. In the past, I’d say to myself, “everyone should hear what (speaker) has to say.” The conference offerings were very linear; didn’t allow people to find their own way, attend to what they need, personalize the event. This year, we are giving each of you permission to create your own learning. Every part of the conference journey will be customizable because we all need different things; we all have a unique path. Each person has permission to create their own path in life and we all are better for it.
Yet finding your own way doesn’t really mean you are alone. Back to this beautifully blue day at Nobes and how it crystallizes the need for support! My head is clouded with uncertainty. I can’t do this alone my inner voice pleads.
And I don’t have to because I have this man right next to me; with his tan feet and his calm demeanor setting down the trail without a second thought. My husband is my support system in this moment and in life, and I know we won’t fail at this together. We sandwich our children with him at the helm carrying all of our stuff. He is confident and seasoned on this path. We follow him knowing he is our support. Calm and engaged in our shared purpose.
We all need support for the various challenges that we face throughout life. Sometimes we are the support and other times we need to be supported. Regardless, community makes us stronger. We are better together. As a clinician to parents, so often I hear people remark about how they don’t have a support system, that they are going it alone and its scary, uncomfortable and lonely. My belief is that if we are lacking in something, we can create it. We’ve created this sense of community of ‘in this together’ mentality at our clinic and in 2014 we decided we wanted to bring more people in, create more space were we can all support one another, so we started Love & Autism, a yearly opportunity to come together to find support, give support, and create community. Let’s together create a space that is supportive.
Oli bounds down the cliff, then pauses. Maybe he has looked down for the first time, maybe he just notices he’s unsteady. He does what Oli does, he says “Carry me, mommy.” As much as I want to scoop him in my arms and march down the ledge with him in my arms, I know that this is not sustainable and even more dangerous. I know that he has to do this on his own. I can’t carry him to safety, I must let go!
We, as parents would love to assure that our children will safely navigate the path of life. We sometimes erroneously believe that we can and we hang on to them, that it will be safer. We can prepare our children for life, but we can’t carry them through it. We have to will ourselves to let go. And this part stinks.
When we let go, we allow our children the possibility of becoming. Kristine Mastrondone understood that in order for her adult child to fully flourish, she had to let go, and allow him to define his self. As a young child, Jake could rely on his mother to shape his thinking and feelings but as the years passed, his desire be an individual grew. He wanted his own path, but he and his mother had real worries of how he would manage life’s real decisions. Kristine wanted her child to be his own man, to live his own life. I’ve been privileged to hear Kristine speak about her own journey of becoming and soon this mother-son dyad will gift us with their story; their journey of becoming.
This mother’s story is not unlike mine, willing my children down the cliff. A large part of me wanted to manage the mis-steps of my children but in doing this both of mine would not learn to manage the development of their agentic self. As I watched my children take their own steps, in their own directions, I knew that letting go was just what I needed to do.
For me, I also know I will find a new “letting go” moment when Aspergers Are Us, an autistic comedy troupe, makes their way to our Love & Autism stage. I know as a clinician and a parent I still struggle with this. In their acclaimed documentary by the same name, four friends set out on their own journey of letting go. Like most of us, these men want to be accepted and appreciated by society. In this case, they want to know that people will find them objectively funny, not just laugh at their jokes as form of pitying people with differences. At the arc of the documentary, we find that each steps into their own space and discovers that if they let go of trying to please society and step in to their own space; this will be good enough. This idea of letting go of societal expectations and finding the courage to live authentically, is a worthy life goal for all of us. Authenticity or living as our true selves comes up frequently in the parenting experiences when raising autistic children. As adults, we must send the younger generation messages that they are whole and lovable and that their path is a worthy path.
Step by step, I’ve found the courage to let my children keep moving and they do just that. They pause and step and sit and climb. They find their own footing. They find their own way.
Take it All In
And we make it to the sand, all of us. My children shift to create their own experiences, live out their own childhood, running full speed into water. I just stand there, taking it all in. Recognizing the moment that is now. Each moment in our lives is a new moment. We have an opportunity to be here now, to create a new meaning, a new connection in each moment. I could get busy laying out the towels, hoisting the umbrellas or I could just breathe in the glory of this moment.
Life so often passes us by and we move through our day without attending to the very real moments in front of us. In some ways, Love & Autism has become a place for pause and be present for me. Its become a way for me to attend to my own journey, to take it all in, to sit in the warmth of love, community, belonging and to notice what is so very good to be connected to this very community that we have created together.
I’m hoping that you will join me for the first time or the fourth time in taking it all in, letting love grow at Love & Autism. Take your own path and enjoy your journey.
Register for the 2017 Love & Autism conference here.