By Ashley Taylor
On her blog, Susan Senator, quotes Leo Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all different in their own way.” She goes on to argue that all happy families are not alike and that even though her oldest son, Nat, has severe autism, a developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills, her family is happy in its own way.
Finding happiness in the face of adversity was the subject of Senator’s talk Monday night at the Kennedy Elementary School. Senator, who lives in Brookline, is the author of two books on raising children with autism and teaches English at Suffolk University. The talk was co-sponsored by the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, of Somerville Public Schools, an organization to reach out to all families raising children in Somerville, and the Somerville Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SPED PAC), an organization for Somerville parents of children with special needs.
For Senator, a snapshot of happiness is not one of a family trip to the beach, where her oldest son is pictured in a wetsuit biting his father during a tantrum. Instead, it may be watching Nat play Special Olympics basketball, or sharing the gooey pleasures of cake batter.
Autism is a disorder affecting one in 110 children, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet this meeting showed how parents of children with special needs of any kind find solace in connection. The meeting was a rare opportunity for Somerville parents of children with special needs—needs uncommon by definition—to connect with others in the same boat. After the talk, many parents stayed to chat, commiserate, and empathize, engaging in the very social behaviors that people with autism find so difficult.
Senator’s talk combined the messages from her two books: not just how to survive raising a child with autism (The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide, 2005) but how to find peace and happiness despite the challenges (Making Peace With Autism, 2010). She described several obstacles to happiness and her strategies for surmounting them.
When Nat was two years old, she and her husband took him to her aunt’s house for Passover, and he wouldn’t go in the door but, instead, threw a long tantrum outside. When it came time to return to Aunt Rhoda’s house for Thanksgiving, Senator decided to make a book for Nat about what Thanksgiving would be like. Nat memorized the book and enjoyed Thanksgiving without throwing a tantrum. Senator described Nat as seeing things as black and white and needing to know what was going to happen in order to feel comfortable. Senator made many “Nat books,” using family photos and hand-written captions, which described what was going to happen in a given social situation. Knowing what to expect from an outing helped Nat and his family to survive it.
According to the CDC website, one symptom of autism is depending on routine and sameness.
At one point, Senator said, Nat developed a habit of loud, irritating, fake laughter. One day, Senator described, Nat started laughing on the couch next to her. She started tickling him, laughing, and saying, “What’s so funny?” All of a sudden, Nat’s laughter became real. She realized that he had been trying to connect with her through the fake laughter.
“It sort of became my new way of being with him,” she said. “I think of it as staying on his side. The more I get back to that feeling I had that afternoon, the better things go.”
Now they bake together, and he eats the batter, which, she agrees with her son, “is just better” than the finished product. She also gave him a bar mitzvah as a coming-of-age ceremony, and he memorized prayers for the occasion, memorization being something he enjoys and does well.
Now Nat is in a residential school for kids with special needs, where he is around others with similar problems and participates in activities, like Special Olympics basketball. Nat’s residential school has also been good for the rest of the family, allowing them to take a trip to Paris. Much as she wished Nat could have participated in the trip, Senator found it wonderful to be able to enjoy the rest of her family. Nat will graduate in November, at age 22, and his adult life will begin. It will be fodder for Senator’s next book.
Senator’s advice to parents? “Believe that having a happy life is possible, but it may not look the way you thought it would.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Cristin Lind, a parent of a child with special needs, who attended Senator’s talk. When asked what about the talk resonated with her, Lind replied: “The biggest challenge of many parents of kids with special needs is coming to terms with what you expected parenting was going to be and what it really is.”
Lind’s son has Noonan Syndrome, which affects his speech and cognitive abilities. Like autism, Noonan Syndrome can have a range of symptoms and severity. The syndrome is rare enough that there are no support groups for it, so she comes to other special needs related events for support. Lind found commonality between the moment Senator realized how to connect with her son through laughter and what she called a “watershed moment” in her relationship to her child.
Finding connections means everything to Lind, who commented:
“As a parent of child with special needs, when you connect with other parents and feel better, you are a better parent.”
The talk, co-sponsored by the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative and the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, was part of a monthly series of talks and trainings for parents of children with special needs. Next month’s talk is entitled, “Understanding My Child’s Learning Style.”