Michele Waterman
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Anything is Possible

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. Over Spring break our family went on a road trip to Southern California to visit various universities. I can’t believe it; my oldest child, John, is finishing his junior year and will be applying to college in the fall. How did this happen? How did we get here so fast? Well, it’s actually been an amazingly long adventure with lots twists and turns. You see John has autism. 

John was born in May of 2000. We read the books, prepared the nursery, bought all the gadgets and gizmos, installed the car seat and were ready to bring our sweet angel home. Soon after John was born, I put my career on hold to take care of him because he deserved my full, complete and undivided attention. And that’s when my identify crisis started. Until then, my self worth was tied to a paycheck. Because here is the deal, I don’t care what anyone says, nothing prepares you for becoming a parent. Motherhood changed me. Not just the physical, I’m talking about the emotional and spiritual parts of me. I started asking myself tough questions especially related to how I wanted to show up in the world. Those hard questions lead to soul searching, which resulted in me getting clean and sober when John was 13 months old. I was simply no longer willing to live a lie—my life looked perfect on the outside but I was dying on the inside.

Getting sober was the best, hardest, most terrifying and courageous decision I ever made. I have been sober for fifteen years and it is my most cherish accomplishment—and I’ve celebrated my fair share of success. Getting sober gives a new meaning to growing pains. It’s hard and it hurts, plain and simple. I basically had to completely change my entire life…no big deal.

At four months of sobriety, we learned we were pregnant with Alyssa—a planned blessing! Life was a little crazy being pregnant, in graduate school, racing around after a toddler that couldn’t communicate, trying to maintain a household and stay sober at the same time. My goal and challenge was learning how to live life on life’s terms without drinking alcohol when my feelings got too big or I felt like escaping reality. I was going to support meetings every day, which saved my ass because life was about to get real on a whole new level.

At nine months sober and seven months pregnant, my husband was in a horrible motorcycle accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. It was unreal. I couldn’t believe this was happening to our little family. Recovery for him would take years—but that’s a whole other blog post for a different day.

A few months after Alyssa was born, our pediatrician insisted that we have John’s speech evaluated. John was diagnosed with apraxia, a type of speech disorder. The speech therapist explained that it would be very hard for John to learn how to talk. That he might not ever be able to say multi-sylable words like helicopter and that we may need to learn sign language in order to fully communicate and understand one another. She suggested that I go to this website www.apraxia-kids.org to learn more about the condition. I quickly discovered that this condition rarely occurs on its own but is usually accompanied by other disorders like down syndrome, cerebal palsy, or autism. When I saw that word – autism – my stomach turned and I just knew.

So I started talking about my fear that John might have autism at meeting level, sharing my story and pain so that I was left with what I could handle to just not drink that day (since we stay clean and sober one day at a time). After the meeting, a man approached me. He introduced himself and suggested that I read a book called Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. He went on to explain that this woman had autism and that she was a very famous, accomplished author and professor at the University of Colorado.

I devoured Thinking in Pictures and sure enough, it confirmed my deepest darkest fear, that my son was different, he had autism. I cried and laughed through the entire book. I cried and laughed relating to how this woman with autism described her experiences of being in the world and how close her experiences matched John. Reading this book was very helpful. For the first time in a long time I had some clarity about John's development - and the truth was that he probably had autism

A few months later we had John formally assessed at UCSF and my concerns were confirmed – “Your son has autism.” I will never forget asking the doctor about John’s prognosis, and he said, “Well, we will know more when he is five or six.” Well, that just wasn't good enough for this mom. I researched and fought for every resource that I believed would help John.

We were in race against time to secure the services required to catch John up developmentally to his peers. We orchestrated a massive early intervention program and spent a huge portion of our life savings on various forms of therapy that would teach John to develop language, social skills, and to deal with the sensory overload that caused self-injurious behaviors. At three years of age, he had very little language, he had major behavioral issues (like hitting himself in the face when I wasn't able to get his needs met), and he didn't socialize and play like other children. He had a lot of what therapists call nonproductive or nonfunctional behavior.

John received special education services through our school district and he had an IEP from 4 to 6 years of age. We pulled John out of public school after he completed first grade and enrolled him in a small Christian school. John needed to be in an environment where he would be embraced with compassion so he could blossom socially and thrive academically. He successfully learned in a fully mainstreamed classroom without the need for an aide and he has only needed minimal accommodations to excel in school—like more time on high stakes tests like the SAT.  

John is the poster-child for early intervention. He has overcome many, many challenges to the point that most people don't know he has high functioning autism. Autism doesn't define who John is—it’s just a part of his story now. He has full command of the English language, which is a miracle based on the limited verbal skills he started with. He is very polite, charming, and engaging, he is eager to please his teachers and peers, and strives for excellence in everything he does. He is a gifted pianist and believes that learning to play the piano actually woke him up emotionally and socially. He is a brilliant, lovely young man, living an amazing, meaningful life on purpose.

I never dreamed that I would be sharing John’s story of hope when he was diagnosed with severe autism a few months before his third birthday—December 11, 2002, to be precise. It has been a long hard road for our family and yet I feel so blessed to be a part of the miracle of John's progress and recovery. John is extremely ambitious and has huge dreams. He wants to pursue a career in neuropsychology and he hopes to attend Santa Clara University or Westmont College. He is also applying to Stanford knowing that it’s a long short but reassuring me that “anything is possible, Mom.” The truth is that John really can be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. He has that kind of mind. Remember when Apple came out with the "Think Different" campaign with pictures of Albert Einstein? We need people to think outside the box, to see the world and situations in a different way. What if we have to be different to think different? And yet Temple Grandin cautions and reminds us that people with autism are "different, not less."

How would you show up in the world if you felt safe to be different? What story do you need to share? What kind of hope are you longing for?

To learn more about how personal development coaching can help you honor and synthesize your story, visit www.michelewaterman.com.