Autism, Family, and the Team Sport of Celebration

Autism, Family, and the Team Sport of Celebration September 27, 2018

We see the posts every time we log on:

“My daughter just made honor roll AGAIN! Woo-hoo!”
“Check out my son dominating the dojo this weekend. He got second place!”
“My kids just won a Nobel Prize for curing a rare auto-immune disease!”

Parental pride can be a beautiful thing, but sometimes we special needs parents feel a bit of a sting when we encounter it from other parents. In fact, it can feel downright hurtful when we start to think about our own child’s future: we don’t know if he or she will ever experience the milestones that seem to come so easily for those other families.

My son Jack is twelve years old, autistic, and functionally non-verbal. Since the early days of his diagnosis, my wife and I have had to learn how to re-adjust our value system. That is, if we only placed value on the traditional markers of development and accomplishment, we would wind up living depressed and disappointed lives. And he would certainly feel that disappointment.

Thus, like most special-needs families, we had to learn the importance of celebrating small victories. For instance, I remember when Jack was four, the whole family would burst into song when he showed us some affection. His sisters would start singing:

“I got a kiss! I got a kiss! Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo!”

At first, such bursts of rejoicing felt a little wooden and awkward. But over time, they became more natural. We realized it was right and good to celebrate the little things. It made Jack feel good, and it did something inside us, too. It gave us glimmers of joy.

source: iStock

As the years have passed, I’ve come to see celebration like a muscle that needs exercise. The more we engage that muscle, the stronger and truer it becomes. And when we invite others into the midst of our celebrations, the joy can double over.

This month, Jack accomplished something worthy of celebration. When my wife took him to a trampoline park, he successfully traversed a difficult obstacle course. He stepped off a platform onto a swing, then grabbed hold of another swing and stepped onto it, then another, then another. He made it all the way to the last swing at the opposite platform.

As I watched the video of that feat, I whooped and cheered, and I knew I had to invite others into his victory. Why was it such a big deal? Because Jack had undergone brain decompression surgery earlier this year in order to correct a drastic loss in motor skills. This proved those skills were coming back full force. It was a big deal for the family.

So I shared it with our church congregation. I am one of the pastors, and I happened to be preaching on the importance of community. The video was a perfect object lesson. And sure enough, the people loved it. They rejoiced with us. Jack isn’t their son, but the video still brought tears of gladness to their eyes. It was awesome.

And it reinforced something I’ve been trying to learn the last few years: a private party for a private victory is insufficient. Celebration is supposed to be shared. This is the reason parents share those posts about honor rolls. It’s why the gymnastics pictures and soccer milestones are so prominent on Facebook. Rather than resenting such public milestones, special needs parents like me would do well join in on the partying. Victories are meant to be shared.

So the next time you see your neighbor gushing about the home run his son hit in the playoffs, join him in his gladness. It might make you wince, I know. Your son might never have those experiences. But you’re flexing a muscle that you need to keep strong for your sake and the sake of your child.

It’s okay to import someone else’s triumph. It’s okay to borrow that triumph as if it’s your own. Celebration, after all, is meant to be a team sport.

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