At the end of 2017, I won a huge award for my sales job in the real estate industry. I had worked incredibly hard, had earned a lot of new clients’ business, and made the most money I had ever made in my life. I didn’t know I had won the award until the day of the industry-wide holiday luncheon. As the presenter read off what sounded like my LinkedIn list of accomplishments, I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t have earned this if it wasn’t for my son.”
Like when my college professors named me the Outstanding Graduate of the Year in 2013, I knew it was because they had understood the extra challenges I overcame to not just graduate, but to graduate summa cum laude with a 3.94 GPA at thirty-six years old. They knew that my journey had been a long and hard one, and that I was doing something none of them could fathom: I was a mother to an autistic son.
Raising a special needs child requires a whole new level of courage, strength and tenacity; there are days I have no idea how I’m supposed to juggle it all. Figuring out the balance, however, has truly translated into my work ethic and taught me that I can be both an awesome mom and a savvy businesswoman. While learning to navigate autism has been a bumpy ride, it has also brought some great laughs, adventures, and has taught me some important life lessons — lessons that translate uncannily to the business world.
1. Autism is authentic. My son is quirky, charismatic, intelligent, loud, funny, and odd. He tends to blurt out his thoughts, sometimes seemingly random, with little to no filter. One of my favorite qualities about him is that he doesn’t care what people think — in fact, he cognitively has a tough time conceptualizing how and what other people think, period. In a world where many people put up pretenses, my son reminds me to be my authentic self. In my business, what you see is what you get, and I will never pretend to be anything other than exactly who I am. Authenticity is what clients respond to in any business, so this has been an incredible boon.
2. Autism has taught me that I am a crisis management champ. Crises may include, and are not limited to:
- “OMG the school switched the Tuesday lunch menu and they’re not serving the regularly scheduled Mandarin Chicken.” (I had to rearrange my schedule and bring him lunch that day.)
- “I’m feeling lonely. I don’t want to go to P.E. It’s too loud and I’m not a ‘P.E. guy’.” (I had to pick him up early.)
- The principal called to inform me he shouted out in class and it scared the other kids. (This one the principal handled until I picked him up after school and had to discuss with him why we don’t yell just because we’re pissed off about Common Core math. I get it, dude—we ALL hate Common Core math. But we don’t yell.)
I’ve learned to stay calm, to not overreact, and that no matter how stressful it is in the moment, it will pass and we will survive. These instances made every other work stressor pale in comparison. If I can handle regular calls from the principal, I can handle anything. Bring. It. On.
3. Autism has helped hone my negotiation skills. My son has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that allows him extra resources and services at school. He has had one since kindergarten and will continue to have one until he graduates high school. Every year, we have a meeting to go over what will be included in his plan. Sitting in plastic chairs meant for tiny hineys, I have advocated every year for him to have the most and best help possible. I’ve learned that if you want something, you must ask for it. If there’s any pushback, then you demand it. Fortunately, I haven’t had to be too forceful, as his IEP team has typically agreed with everything we felt he needed. But sitting in that setting, I learned that I have a voice, and can use it when needed. Considering the many committees I served on for work, this little nugget proved quite useful in situations when I needed my opinion to matter.
4. My degree is in Communication, but my son has taught me more about interpersonal communication than I ever learned in class. I can tell my son to do something, but unless it appeals to him or his train of thought on the matter, it isn’t going to happen. It’s just the way his brain is wired. I have learned how to speak his language, how to connect the words just so, so that they go into his brain packaged just right. It’s no different with the people I work with every day. We all have preferred ways of learning and communicating. Being fluent in more than one communication style has helped connect me with so many more people.
5. You learn to have a very thick skin, both for your kid and because of them. I’ve watched as kids ridiculed him behind his back. I’ve seen him excluded from party invitations. I’ve had to pull the protective Mama Bear card on many occasions. I’ve also been on the receiving end of many of his verbal meltdowns (although he always apologizes soon after). Meltdowns don’t discriminate and they sometimes destruct everything in their path. I’ve learned to be patient and understanding. I know that I, and all special needs parents, have superhero powers. Sometimes in business, feelings can get hurt. Miscommunications, frustration over missed sales goals, and dealing with competitors can be emotionally exhausting. Being able to tough it out during those times takes grit and tenacity. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, with grace and a sense of humor.
Autism ain’t easy, but I wouldn’t trade our adventures. My son makes me an all-around better person and truly lights up our family. He’s even inspired me to tap into my inner entrepreneur, as I start my own business as a speaker, writer, and coach. Helping others by sharing our story has redirected me to what I feel is my true purpose. I don’t know that I would have mustered the courage for this endeavor were it not for him. My hope is that I can inspire him and my other kids, so they know just how awesome they are.