Courtesy of Areva Martin
Opinion

How I Overcame the Heartbreak of My Son’s Autism Diagnosis

May 12, 2017

'I couldn’t love him more’

For all of us, there are times when the spinning wheel of fortune lands on “bad things.” We face tragedy, heartbreak, loss, rejection, disappointment — challenges the likes of which we never faced before. Somehow, we not only survive these challenges but also come out stronger and wiser. If we take a moment to reflect, we know that everything we are — all the love, strength and resilience that we have inside — we got from our mothers.

Though mothers may have perfect love for their children, we are far from perfect ourselves. We suffer from the same human frailties as everyone else, and when fate deals us a seemingly bad hand, we can — just like anyone else — reach a breaking point. We can lose our composure, our supermom capes, and become vulnerable, questioning everyone and everything around us. I should know because it happened to me.

Early in my legal career, my third child, Marty, was diagnosed with autism. I was absolutely devastated. Like most parents, I’d dreamed of a life of endless possibilities for my son. Maybe he’d become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a distinguished archeology professor, galavanting around the globe like Indiana Jones; or perhaps he’d even become President of the United States. But with an autism diagnosis, I had to question whether the grand dreams I had for my son were still a possibility. Without doubt, his life was going to be very different from the one I had imagined.

Courtesy of Areva Martin

With that brutal knowledge, I went into a deep depression, to the point where I couldn’t even say the word “autism” without crying uncontrollably. I spiraled downward into a world of doubt and self-pity, constantly asking questions like, Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? Did I work too many hours? Did I eat the wrong foods during my pregnancy? What on earth did I do to deserve to have my perfect world rocked?

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For a time, I didn’t know how I would carry on. I went to bed early and slept late, oblivious to the world around me. Then, one day, it came to me. From the recesses of my mind, from the early days of my childhood, I remembered the profound words of my mother: “Don’t question, persevere!” I remembered hearing those words over and over again, every time I thought I was being treated unfairly. Why did some kids get to live in big houses and ride in fancy cars, while I lived in the projects? “Don’t question, persevere!” Why did some kids have shiny new bikes and Barbie dolls when I didn’t? “Don’t question, persevere!”

So, with Marty’s diagnosis, I stopped questioning. Instead, I persevered.

I determined that I was going to make the best life possible for my son, no matter what. I educated myself on all there was to know about autism, and I went on a quest to find Marty the best care possible. And what I realized in talking with health care professionals, and talking to parents of children with autism, was that there was much to be hopeful about; that with early intervention therapies, the appropriate educational setting and lots of love and support, Marty, like other kids on the autism spectrum, could thrive.

My mother’s admonition to persevere led me from anguish to advocacy, not just for Marty, but also for millions of other kids on the spectrum through my nonprofit work with Special Needs Network and other autism advocacy organizations.

Looking back, I realized how self-absorbed I was. I didn’t see that what was handed to me was the most wonderful gift, the most fantastic blessing a mother could ask for.

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Today, my son Marty is a handsome teenager who is leading a full and productive life. I couldn’t love him more or be prouder of the person he has become.

As I reflect on Mother’s Day, I am reminded of the following words from author Gail Tsukiyama: “Mothers and their children are in a category all their own. There’s no bond so strong in the entire world. No love so instantaneous and forgiving.”

Any woman who’s given birth to a child on the autism spectrum — who’s fed them, changed their diapers, bathed them, taught them right from wrong and loved them unconditionally through thick and thin — knows exactly what these words mean.

Areva Martin is an attorney, advocate, television host, legal and social issues commentator and author. She is the founder of Martin & Martin, LLP, and her next book, Make It Rain!, will be published by Hachette in 2018.

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