The way I met this family actually was pretty stalkerish. I saw the Dad at a running expo and noticed an autism logo on his sweatshirt...then I followed him. I don't usually follow random people, by the way, but in the moment I felt totally compelled to do so. I caught up to him quickly and asked him about his sweatshirt; he kindly told me what it was from and then I told him why I was asking.
See, my son had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder the previous month, and though the diagnosis was welcome after so many years of struggle, I was leaving the honeymoon period and reality was setting in - you know, the what the hell does this really mean reality. Once I told the Dad that my son has ASD, he stopped his wife and two adult twin boys who are both severely autistic and introduced them. They were at the running expo to pick up the boys numbers because they were running the marathon.
I thought: I'm running the marathon too. And, marathons are hard. HOW are your boys, with severe autism, going to run a marathon?
I've been running my whole life and I am not naïve to scenarios in which the most unlikely runners complete marathons, but at the time I was thinking about my son and how he bangs his head so hard that his nose bleeds and I was trying to make the leap from that to where these incredible boys can run a full marathon. In the briefest of moments, the Mom and Dad told me how they figured out the boys liked to run when they were in their teens, and now the family runs together (with guides and the occasional behavioral therapist, which is SO neat) and the boys LOVE it.
And then I started to cry.
Let me be clear that my son does not have severe autism and I will never know the emotional and physical struggles of this family, and I was aware of that then. What I didn't know, and still don't, is what my son's talent is, where his passion lies...at the time I couldn't even get him to tell me he was hungry, and so I was in awe (and still am) of the parents that stood before me that had figured this out for their boys and then overcame obstacles to make it possible for them.
They showed me light.
In that moment I knew that until I could find my son's passion (and probably even after I do) I would use my own legs for a greater purpose, and I have - running at least one race a year to raise money for autism. Without a doubt, this has been life changing for me. If getting my son's ASD diagnosis cracked open a door for me, this family kicked it open the rest of the way and put a door stop in, because you have to trust me when I tell you that there is no way you could meet this family and not be amazed by them. Hope...I felt such hope after talking to them.
I checked in with the family a few months after our initial meeting, and the Mom asked me how I was doing. I answered her by saying that I still had moments when I felt like I couldn't believe that I had a child with autism. How she replied to me was unexpected: "Me too", she said, "I still can't believe I have children with autism". And, as if their family hadn't done enough for me already, what she gave me at that moment was akin to a Get Out of Jail Free card...permission to not always be o.k. with the path in life we are given, but to persevere anyway. This is still incredibly enlightening to me and I will forever be grateful for her raw honesty.
So, yes, I stalk this amazing family, but do so now as their friend. They inspire me, they give me hope, they let me know that my love for my son will be boundless. They were my first connection to the autism community and embody the strength and compassion that I've come to rely on from my friends who walk in similar shoes.
As I reflect on what I am thankful for this time of year, it includes my gratitude for this family who opened their lives to a stranger one day and showed me how to
Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.
-Robert Louis Stevenson