Do we think of our autistic kids as more rigid than resilient? In that mindset, does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a symptom of our own rigidity—or can it become an opportunity for both parent and child, teacher and learner, to understand and grow?

“That’s it! It’s all over! I’ve just completed my Associate’s Degree. I am officially a college graduate!”

I couldn’t possibly overstate the elation in our house when Bryce posted those words to Facebook. But any parent of an autistic child knows that the simplicity of Bryce’s statement comes with a backstory about the road to this grand achievement being anything but smooth.

At the start of his last term, Bryce needed only one class to complete his degree. To his shock, he flunked the first two assignments. We huddled and strategized, fortified ourselves with worst-case scenarios that weren’t so bad—but were unacceptable to him. He bore down, soldiered on and, true to our family motto of “finish strong!” his last assignment put him over the top—he got an A in the class. He did it without a single smart phone app, but with a character app that is perhaps the foremost attribute he needed on his quest to become a college graduate: resilience.

Resilience. It’s the memory foam, the bop-bag punch toy that allows us to regain our equilibrium when life dents us and knocks us off course. It’s the difference between woe-is-me and on-to-Plan-B.

Inevitably, people will dishearten us and, humans that we are, we’ll disappoint others—including, at some point, our children. At those times, we sometimes discover that our children seem more blessed with resilience than we adults. They forgive and forget, or forgive even if they don’t forget, or forget without forgiving. Either way, they wipe the slate clean. It’s humbling and admirable, and another example of how circular is the teacher/learner relationship. Years ago, a dad recounted to me years of struggle with his son. “I couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that the things he did were a manifestation of his Asperger’s,” he wrote. “I was the one suffering from a disability. Our relationship has improved greatly, but I still beat myself up about those years when I could have been helping cope with his challenges. Can you help me move on?” In fact, this dad had himself written what he needed in the next paragraph: “Since I’ve worked to understand my son, I’ve found his courage and determination inspiring.” His son’s resilience would lead the way to his own.

Though to some people resilience comes naturally, for most of us, it’s a choice. I wrote to this dad, “Being courageous enough to admit when we’re wrong sets the best kind of example for our children. You’ve already helped yourself move on. We aren’t born knowing how to raise children. What else can you do except learn as you go? Look forward now to all the opportunities to come.”

Bryce attended a high school where the long-standing tradition is for parents to ask family and friends of their senior-year child to compose notes of encouragement to present to the student at graduation. Bryce received dozens of them, the theme of resilience coming through clearly. One teacher wrote:

“You will face challenges and battles, failure and success, but don’t be dismayed—you will make it. Your jobs and friendships will change, either by choice or not by choice, but don’t be dismayed—you will make it. You will know right from wrong. This is only the beginning and you’re in control.”

Other teachers invoked the words of others, including the Blues Traveler lyric, “There’s no such thing as a failure who keeps trying,” and the perennial unattributed graduation sentiment, “We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.”

Proverbs abound in every culture counseling that it’s not about how many times we fall, but how many times we get up. We build resilience with the mortar of fortification from others, but ultimately, like the memory foam and the bop bag, it has to rise and soar from our own inner resources. In the moment we need it most, we’ll find this to be true. One day I came across a quote on the Internet that I thought summed up the concept of resilience with elegant concision: “There is only a pencil stroke’s difference between bitter and better.” Imagine the jolt I got when I searched for the author and found it was me.

The notes written to Bryce at graduation painted a portrait of a young man, a work in progress, who has overcome much of his innate rigidity with the choice to be resilient. In my own note to him, I wrote:

“Yours is the triumph of a man who understands that perseverance, resilience, integrity and belief in one’s self can overcome many obstacles.

How can I be less than your example?”



© 2014 Ellen Notbohm

Categories: autism, autistic, ASD, Aspergers, parenting, special needs, teachers, IEP, special education