By Joanne Giacomini
My name is Joanne. I am a writer, speaker and parent coach, but above all, I have the honor and privilege to be the mother of a very funny, intelligent and beautiful little boy named Michael, who just happens to have autism! I always say to people when I introduce myself now, that I am proud to be Michael’s mother, and proud to say that he in fact is raising me to a be a better parent and human being. Why do I say that? It is because before Michael came into my life, I had a very narrow and limited view of the world, and of the people in it. I do not mean that I wasn’t open minded, and didn’t believe in differences or different ways of being. Only that I did not see disability as ability in other areas. Like a lot of neurotypical people, I would see someone with a learning disability, a physical challenge, as well as with autism, through one lens only: what they lacked or could not do.
The first few years after my son’s diagnosis of autism, that is how I saw him. I worked tirelessly to bring him into “my world, the neurotypical world,” and did not see how I needed to go into his world too. That began to change though, and then the two of us truly began to dance with one another. When Michael saw how I met him at the edge of his world with social stories, tools to help him manage sensory needs, and talking to family and friends about his different ways of relating with respect, he started to do the same for me. Hey, I’m a little weird too. All of us are when you think about it. And that so-called “weirdness” is what makes us uniquely us.
Fast forward to six years after Michael’s autism diagnosis at three and a half. He is now nine years old and has been through lots of “obsessions” by our society’s view. First there was Barney the Dinosaur, followed by other animated characters and TV shows. He went through repeatedly playing a lot of the same games over and over alone and with me, pounding out the same notes on the toy piano and guitar, and now for the last year what has become his latest obsession, is directions and navigation. Yes, you heard me right. I literally live with a little human GPS that insists on knowing where we are going, what streets we will take to get there, and that we go his way taking his “favorite streets.” He knows how to use “Google Maps”, is learning how to read maps in books, and goes somewhere once in the car, and knows how to get there again. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten lost and Michael, my son with autism and learning challenges, has sighed and told me the way to go. I have no sense of direction and have appreciated this so much!
I now consider his love of directions and navigation as his passion, and a possible future career as a map designer or tour guide, not as an “obsession.” In looking back, I see how his mind has always zeroed in on detail, whether it was his favorite toy stuck up on a shelf, his favorite food in the cupboard, or a song he once heard and could sing back word for word. That is a brain that is stronger in visual perception than in others.
What I now tell other parents whose children have autism, is to look closely at these so-called obsessions. Yes, they need to be able to break away from passions to engage with family, friends and the world in general. But don’t limit these things they love to do. Michael’s Dad and I now encourage his love of mapping and navigation. We let him go on Google and plan out the route. We also bought him a book of maps. I got a big kiss on the cheek and a “thank you Mommy!” We are proud of him as are members in the family for this talent, and I have learned that we all have obsessions, or as I like to now call them, passions. For me, it is my writing, for my husband it is computers. We have made careers out of them. It’s time to start encouraging our children with autism, who show extreme interest in a subject, that it is healthy and positive. Step into their world and they will step into ours. Then we will truly be meeting halfway.