When you find out you’re going to be a mom, you likely fantasize about who your child will look like, how they will be, and what their future will hold. But what happens when your reality is different from your fantasy? For many parents, an autism diagnosis can greatly impact the dreams they have for their children–especially for families of color.
Calonda Henry, M.S. CCC-SLP, clinical director and owner of Broad Horizons Speech Therapy, a private practice based in Jacksonville, Florida spoke with ESSENCE about how difficult it can be to process an autism diagnosis.
“Specifically in the minority community, there’s a lot of negative connotation that goes with disabilities,” Henry says. “I think oftentimes parents have a lot of worries in general with their child being a minority because there’s a lot of research that goes behind behaviors being associated differently from minority students in comparison to their majority peers. When the parents think about this, they’re like, you know, this is just going to be another layer for my child to have to endure and go through.”
The Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) actually lists fear of stigma as one of the barriers to identifying autism in Black and hispanic children. Other barriers they mention include low income, English not being a primary language, and not having citizenship. But for those who have taken the courageous step to get their child tested and sought out a formal diagnosis, what’s next?
Give Yourself Time to Process Your Emotions
Allowing yourself to process your feelings without judgment or shame may be a good first step. It can be a difficult reality to accept, especially if autism is new terrain for you.
Henry tells ESSENCE, “There are a lot of emotions that are associated with [a diagnosis]. That guilt and shame kind of happens first. A lot of parents can go through that internalization of thinking, ‘is there something that I did?’ or ‘are there things that I could have done better?’”
She recommends talking through those emotions and that guilt with healthcare professionals as counseling is a major part of what they do.
Practice Radical Acceptance
Once you’ve given yourself time to process your emotions, you may be able to slowly make your way towards a place of acceptance. This means accepting that your child is unique and letting go of any assumptions about who and how your child should be. It could also mean releasing any negative thoughts and beliefs you have about autism.
As Henry says, “Autism is not an illness–it’s not something that we’re trying to get rid of.”
Find Support Networks
Community can be a sacred thing that provides comfort when you’re passing through murky waters. Knowing there are people who look like you going through similar struggles can be helpful.
Henry tells ESSENCE, “Oftentimes when mothers talk with me, I give suggestions of different parents support groups.”
For instance, there is a Facebook group you could consider joining called BAMS (Black Autism Moms) to meet other Black mothers who understand what you’re going through and share their experiences. She also recommends finding a Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) near you–they have 221 locations in 24 states. They provide knowledge and resources you can use to navigate your child’s diagnosis.
Self-Care as Much as You Need to
Taking care of a child with a disability can be challenging, so take care of yourself. Find pockets of time to rest and do things that bring you joy when possible. If you have help with childcare, consider utilizing it. Engage in hobbies and spend time with friends when you can. If you’re unusually overwhelmed, consider talking to a therapist. Take care of yourself so you aren’t consumed by what can be a life-changing diagnosis for you and your loved ones.
Celebrate Your Child for Who They Are
Your child may not function in a neurotypical way, but that doesn’t make them any less incredible. Henry recommends applauding them for the skills they have.
“Sometimes we spend so much time working on the weaknesses that we don’t highlight the strengths,” she says.
So, if your child has excellent memory, is great with numbers, or is witty, try to celebrate that often. Remember, a diagnosis isn’t there to tell you your child is inadequate.
“The diagnosis helps us to learn how the child or the individual learns best and activate their strengths and really tap into the areas that we can help them improve through how they learn. And I think the difference is learning that this is not about changing them or fixing them. This is about activating how they learn and serving them best through the way that they learn,” Henry says.