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Schooled by autism: 5 lessons from my special-needs sons
Raising my four sons, two of whom have special needs, has shown me that people with autism see the world differently. Their unique perspective offers the rest of us opportunities to practice empathy, acceptance, flexibility and perseverance. My children have taught me that, despite our different worldviews and abilities, we are all people with hopes and dreams and fears and with deeper similarities than our differences. - photo by Megan Goates
Raising children with special needs has taught me a lot of things, particularly about cleanable surfaces and the importance of having a large supply of chocolate on hand.

But what else do I know now that I didn't know before? What can all of us learn from people with developmental disabilities?

A lot, actually.

In our family, where two of our four sons have special needs, autism, anxiety and developmental delay are part of our daily routine. Here are a few lessons from the homefront:

1. People like what they like. Trying to change them is a silly endeavor, likely to end in frustration.

I know children with autism who are fascinated by vacuums, dinosaurs, Minecraft, trains and crime dramas. Their brains sometimes seem stuck for years on a particular thing that motivates and interests them. While it may seem boring or repetitive to a neuro-typical person, it is comforting and stimulating to a person on the spectrum. We don't all care for sports or love reading best-selling fiction this is true of any group of people. Expanding our horizons is a worthy goal, but it is my opinion that while a kid's unique and laser-focused preferences may confound the general population, she is entitled to them. My son's obsession with shop-vacs is a daily reminder that a child can innately love things that make his parents shrug.

2. Pick your battles, unless you like being constantly at war.

It might be tempting to take a peek inside a house like mine and shake your head with disappointment at the chips, goldfish crackers and dinosaur nuggets that largely make up the "carbivore" diet of those with sensory issues who live here. A more comprehensive look at our lives would reveal that mealtime is just one of 87 billion battles being waged daily, pitting the parents against the children with autism. So when it comes to boys wearing sweatpants every day of the week and eating a diet of beige kid food, parents like me have to ask ourselves, "Do we really want to die on this hill?" I'm a survivalist and a minimalist, not a vainglorious warrior, so the answer is generally a hearty "No." Eat those nuggets and live in those sweatpants, my sons. We save our energy for the big fights, like doing behavior therapy, getting on the school bus promptly and not biting people.

3. Structured routines are the lifeblood of the special-needs family. Anyone who disagrees will be shown the door.

Don't like to be organized? Prefer flying by the seat of your trousers to planning and implementing consistent routines? Do you prefer spontaneity to order and schedules? Then get out. Just kidding. Mi casa es su casa. Just know that those free-form ways won't necessarily work for families with children who flourish with routines. It's not that we don't enjoy living in the moment and being open to possibilities and such. It's simply that doing so often sends our special-needs children into a behavioral tailspin. We choose life and structure over meltdowns.

4. People are more important than things.

Kids on the spectrum have a knack for dismantling things in a blink. They explore the world by manhandling it. My son likes to throw large objects simply to hear what kind of a crash they will make when they land. It's satisfying sensory input. With housemates like mine, I've learned not to get too attached to stuff. Beautiful, useful and meaningful things are nice, but that doesn't mean they'll stick around long. I like to think of my house as something like a missive in a spy movie. It lasts only long enough to serve its purpose, and then it self-destructs. Boom.

5. We are more than our abilities.

My two middle sons have proven to me that it's not our outward trappings that define us, but who we are at the core. My children are more than stretchy pants and Doritos, vacuums and temper tantrums. They are little boys who happen to have a disability. They are people, like you and me, who see the world from a unique perspective. Generalizing this lesson for myself and everyone I meet has been one of the best gifts autism has given me. We, all of us, are more than our hang-ups, our issues and our quirks. We are more than our lifestyle, our abilities and our hobbies.

We are people happy and sad, complex and interesting.
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