Friday, March 9, 2018

At Home in Ourselves: A Mindful Acceptance of My Autistic Son

Star jump
Photo © Stuart Anthony | Flickr/Creative Commons
[Image: Two backlit people attempting to jump over a horizon-adjacent sun.]
Leslie J. Davis
"When I practice breathing in and I say, 'I have arrived,' that is an achievement. Now I am fully present, one hundred percent alive. The present moment has become my true home. When I breathe out I say, 'I am home.' If you do not feel you are home, you will continue to run. And you will continue to be afraid. But if you feel you are already home, then you do not need to run anymore. This is the secret of the practice. When we live in the present moment, it is possible to live in true happiness." –Thich Nhat Hanh, "No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life"
Every Monday night I sit with my meditation group and practice breathing in and out in an attempt to calm my racing thoughts, to learn how my mind works, to remember that I have a body. I sit on a brown zafu cushion and breathe in and out, saying to myself, "I have arrived. I am home." On the in breath: Arrived. On the out breath: Home.

This practice of breathing slowly in and out allows me to slow down, so I can stop running. So I can stop being afraid. So I can stop worrying. Often the fear and the worries rush back in after the meditation session is over, but doing the sitting helps me bring an essence of calm and a sense of being "home" into my daily life when I'm not on the cushion.

Having this capacity to slow down so I can be at home in myself has allowed me to trust that my autistic teen son is also at home in himself. It allows me the space to observe him closely and notice him for who he is, instead of trying to change him to be someone I want him to be, expect him to be, or that society expects him to be.

My autistic son has a rich and vivid inner life. I see him watch, listen, and notice. He uses spoken language and communicates well, yet I know there is much that he isn't sharing because he can't, or chooses not to. I know there are oceans inside of him that he isn't revealing to anyone. Because of my meditation practice and spending time on the cushion, I'm able to watch him, listen to him, and notice.

Recently I had a coffee date with a dear friend and we had heart-to-heart on an important experience in my life. Afterwards, all these thoughts ran through my mind: There's so much more I didn't have a chance to say! There's so much more I could say but am choosing not to say. There's so much more to this that I don't yet understand. There are experiences in my life that this relates to but we didn't have time to talk about it. I don't want to tell her everything; I want to keep some of it to myself.

There is so much going on inside of a person that we don't know about. On all the levels: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, hormonal, ancestral, etc. Our inner lives are rich with detail and feelings—on any given day there is so much we don't share with other human beings. Why would we non-autistic people think this is any different for an autistic person?

When my son was a young child his imagination astonished me with the depth and detail of his creations and made-up worlds. I used to try to get him to write it out, draw it, speak about it, until I realized, Who am I to force him to open those places up to me? When he wanted to talk to me about his made-up worlds, he would. When he decided to draw maps of his world, he would draw maps for days, and I would watch, marvel at his concentration and creativity, gently asking a question or two here and there. Sometimes he was excited to talk about it and other times, not. When I shifted my perspective I could accept that when he's in his own world in his mind, he is safe, he is home.

His present moment is his true home.

As a mom, breathing and staying calm aided me in seeing him for who he truly was: a boy completely at home in his own world—comfortable and calm and free--unless I was the one pressuring him into doing things I "thought" would help him, doing things my societal conditioning told me was right, or was expected of him. When social norms whispered in my ear—or more accurately, shouted in my ear—they came via comments and suggestions from non-autistic people, doctors, therapists, teachers, or the voices in my own head based on my own upbringing in a neurotypical society.

When I listened to these outside voices, I'd yell at my son, insulting his individuality, trying to pressure him into a mold, and attempting to define who he was in a way other people would understand. Putting others first and ourselves, second. But when I stayed mindfully aware of his essence, I saw that he was happy and free. That he was smart and expressive and curious. There was no need for me to intrude.

But intrude I did, for many years. Before having the conditions to set my mind at rest and put my trust in him, before an autism diagnosis, before my meditation practice steadied me, before I let go of outside expectations and trusted my intuition, I intruded in ways I'm not proud of. For years I was a messy conglomeration of views, theories, approaches and therapies. I swung back and forth between being a toxic, controlling, fear-driven, socially-influenced mom, and being a steady, confident, calm, trusting advocate for my son whose actions from a place of love. Both were happening at the same time. It caused a lot of suffering in our home—mostly for our son.

One of my son's occupational therapists used to ask, "What Would Love Do?" and I would cry every time she said it, because my desire to move from a place of love was so deep—and at the same time I was clutched in the grip of a neurotypical world's expectations, and operating through the lens of mainstream expectations and ideologies.

Eventually, our family embraced a non-conventional lifestyle in regards to my son's education and care, and chose to pursue our own path of support for him through homeschooling, private therapies, and mindfulness practices. Letting go of conventional views set us free to be at home in ourselves.

"I am large, I contain multitudes." -Walt Whitman

When I practice meditation and remember to return home to myself in the present moment, I know that my autistic son contains multitudes—oceans of thoughts, feelings, sensations, awareness and insights that he doesn't share with me. And I accept that he has the right to be at home in himself and be the owner of his own experience, and of his own happiness.

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