* An edited version of this original article was first published in the Manila Bulletin print version on 23 April 2012. The on-line version can be found here.
Acceptance, in baby steps
My husband and I had lofty dreams when we married in 1991. Our son, Carlo Gregorio, was born more than a year after we married and was a celebrated addition, being the first male grandchild to my parents. He grew into a handsome and energetic toddler, who received so much love from his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Amidst the joy, I began to notice little idiosyncrasies; and being the new mom that I was, I brushed them off as personality quirks. Professionals soon gave us a name for the condition my son suffered – AUTISM.
In the beginning, the possibility that my son, as some doctors told us, might not even finish grade school gnawed at me. I was afraid that my son will be “least favoured” in my family for his intellectual limits, as we have always put a great importance on academic accomplishment. I was embarrassed for my son’s social faux pas, scared that he will not grow out of them. Of course, there was that unspoken sense of guilt – I searched my brain for things I did or food I ingested during my pregnancy that could have damaged my son so irreparably.
My husband, who had always been more accepting and laid-back, was confident that we could work together to help Carl be the best he could be. He became my rock and strength when our small son became exceptionally difficult. And contrary to my early fears, our families have been paragons of generosity of spirit – helping us when we needed respite and loving Carl unconditionally. My father and brother have formed special bonds with my Carl – three generations of Carl’s! My sister would give me “alone time”, taking Carl out to give me a few hours of quiet. His cousins would rush to his aide when other kids are less than kind to Carl. Our own cousins seem oblivious to his weaknesses, offering only encouragement at Carl’s improvement at every family reunion. I know our journey has been made easier by the kindness our extended family has shown over the years.
In hindsight, it was when I tore the weight of negativity from my shoulders, when I began to look at my son’s autism as part of our family’s bucket of challenges that I was able to help Carl better. I have become more confident about talking about the challenges of autism to other parents, welcoming the opportunity to help find answers to questions or to simply compare notes. My husband and I were able to help our some cousins and friends when their children were also diagnosed with autism. Carl’s younger siblings — 12 and 8 years old — are themselves growing up to be outspoken autism advocates. The sense of humour helped too.
The theme of this year’s National Autism Conference on 28-29 April 2012 at the Crowne Plaza in Pasig, strikes very close to home. We, like many parents, are taking each challenge as it comes, at peace with the fact that our family is strong because the challenges of autism bind us to become stronger. It is the families touched by autism that propels people to work towards autism awareness, education and advocacy.
Carl and the future
Now 19 years old, Carl has graduated from high school and has enrolled at Independent Living and Learning Center, where he has been honing his social skills and practicing college-appropriate classroom behaviour. This year, he is entering their Job Readiness Program and will be interning in an office. My husband and I are thankful for institutions like ILLC which has coached Carl into the promising young adult he is today.
Like any regular teenager, Carl loves to spend time with his friends and teachers — on the phone and on Facebook. He enjoys school-sanctioned dance parties, community trips and school programmes; and has hosted several school events and family reunions. He participated in the Special Collection 2010 in UP Diliman, a fashion show starring PWDs; and is a member of the ILLC Hunks, a dance group that performs regularly at autism community events.
Carl has always been enamoured by the stories of the taipans of Philippine business; and dreams of becoming an industrialist himself. We helped Carl organize “Gregarious Gifts” (http://www.facebook.com/gregariousgifts) – a venue where he can create and market hand-made products. When there is an upcoming bazaar, the entire family pitches in and helps Carl meet his volumes.
Despite the distance Carl has gone, the future is still a scary entity. But among all the institutions out there designed to help individuals with autism, the hardest-working, steadiest, most consistent group I know, that will help Carl through thick and thin, is our FAMILY. And that thought brings me a semblance of peace.