Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

A Story from the Trenches

It’s been six months since our last date night and Joey carves out a night to go out to eat, connect, and watch a movie together. During our conversation some information trickles down. He tells me that his mother asked if I’m planning to join a homeschooling group. His sense is that she read my uncurriculum and was so not impressed by it, she thinks I need help from more experienced people. This is not the first time I’ve heard bits of second-hand information about the concerns and questions my parents-in-law have about Joaquin’s education at home. Recently Joey has shared that he thinks his dad would like for Joaquin to go to school so I can go back to work, so Joey will get some help and won’t have to worry so much in his role as sole bread-winner. My father-in-law has asked him “What does Joaquin learn at home?!” and “What does Maria do all day?!”.

I confess. These old and more recent opinions don’t come to me neutrally. Even as I write these words one month later I feel the spike in my pulse. I feel alone. I am alone. It was never my plan to live this life. I had it well figured out: I’d have a typical child who would go to pre-school, kindergarten, many years of school and college, maybe grad school like us, where he’d learn everything he’d need to get a job and provide for himself. I would go back to work when he started pre-school. I was planning to hand him over and trust his academic education and future to teachers. I would have a typical mother’s life. Joaquin would grow up and learn the same way I did, and my husband, and everybody else I knew.

Instead I had a child for whom typical has never been the rule. As a baby he cried and yelled his heart out through Mother’s Morning Out (they kicked him out!), hated and resisted every activity at the Little Gym, didn’t want to have anything to do with the kids or meetings of our playgroup. At one and a half, he responded in an abnormally contractive way to the first time we left him for a night in the care of his grandparents so we could attend a friend’s wedding. Then we learned about autism and it all made sense. I dedicated all of who I am for four years facilitating his social growth and training and leading a team of volunteers to participate in our home program aimed –and successful– at developing the building blocks necessary to his ability to learn and function in this world. And after finishing the program and recognizing that he was ready to learn out of our “social greenhouse”, it is still clear that for reasons I don’t know, he can’t yet thrive within a group.

Joaquin tunes out of all the information given when he’s not the direct recipient of it. I don’t know if the sounds are too loud, the presence of the people, their energy and emotions, but definitely something makes it hard for him to listen and stay engaged within groups, and so he misses the information and gets lost. Through several experiences out of home we have and continue to see this: One-on-one is still what is best for him, and in all cases his learning switch turns off when someone (even me) attempts to push content he is not interested in learning. He learns best and plenty from his own interests and projects, not from somebody else’s curriculum. At home –and free to pursue his interest– his learning switch is always on; he feels safe and comfortable and can dedicate all his time to explore, create, and seek conversations with me constantly. Through his own spoken words, his experiences in out-of-home classes and activities, and intuitive messages, Joaquin tells me that our home is where he still learns best. And for that reason, I’m happy to stay at home with him as his learning partner.

I know this; there is no question in my mind about it. I feel confident and trusting except for a few times when I don’t. I feel capable and attuned to my son’s development and the unfolding of our path. I have been successful: Our program pulled him out of a world limited by overwhelming sensitivity to so many triggers. He emerged from it and can now speak, be in the presence of people, interact with them, participate in public places, learn from a constantly expansive set of “socially appropriate” interests, take private lessons with adults who are not as flexible as he’s experienced. He has grown beyond what I first thought was possible the first day I knew there was a diagnosis for him, so that people who meet him now can conceive of him going to school and me becoming a normal mom like all the others: with girls’ night outs, paid jobs, occupations, roles and experiences apart from “mother”.

Yet, the path is not easy. My life as Joaquin’s mother is a blind walk through less traveled paths. I don’t know if it will all be okay in the future; if Joaquin will grow up to provide for himself when I die. I need to take breaks, and sometimes the intensity of all my intentions and participation in his development go down and I get scared. Sometimes I fear that his current world with a single person in it (eleven out of thirteen of Joaquin’s waking hours Monday-Friday) may not be enough to support his development. I wish I was not alone. I wish I had help. I wish my parents-in-law understood; wish they didn’t quietly disapprove. I realize that their concerns come from lack of detailed information about Joaquin’s process (the information that would come from me; not Joey), and my response to their thoughts only points to my own insecurity and fears in this “pioneer” path. So I validate myself to keep walking, asking my questions, listening for the answers. I’ll keep doing my best, looking for the signs and turns, growing my self-trust with every mile walked and all the miracles that come with it.

* * *

In my dream that night I see a black grasshopper. Joaquin offers to kill it and I doubt for a moment that he’ll be able to, but he taps it right on the head and kills it without a problem. Then he’s going to dissect it. At this point the grasshopper is the size of a small animal; much bigger than a real grasshopper and it resembles the round body of a beetle: A giant shiny black shelled insect laying on its back, about to be dissected. I’m about to go help Joaquin when he’s already grabbed a knife and cut through the exoskeleton. I’m surprised that he beat me at providing instruction or facilitation. We notice that a thin fuzzy skin is the next layer in the body of the insect. Before I can think of how to cut through it, Joaquin has already done it. The next layer is a bright orange fleshy mass with the consistency and appearance of a human organ; I’m wondering what it is and how to retrieve it when I notice that Joaquin has already removed it and eaten it. I’m surprised again for his expertise demonstrated much sooner than I could offer any help. In the insect we see know a bright blue/green spine surrounded by fluid in the same color. I’m wondering about it, again slow to “facilitate” anything for Joaquin because before I know it, I notice a bit of the blue-green goo poking out of the corner of his mouth. He’s lifted the spine in a piece and eaten it. My feeling is Joaquin did it all. Was it right? I wonder if he’s eaten something he was not supposed to eat, something not safe to eat. But it’s over and everything is fine. My child knew more than me, and my help was not needed. I was just there to witness and learn, I suppose.

The dream reminds me of the truth that has come to guide me over and over during the years: He is the teacher. It reminds me of my many dreams before having him, in which as a baby he spoke two languages and what he communicated was above my level. He was a baby master far more advanced than his mother. This dream tonight tells me:

“Mother, keep being here for me, keep offering me your help and guidance, but don’t worry. I am guiding this. I know. I am and will be fine. Stick with me and keep learning; I’ve got this.”

Welcome to my parent mentoring service

Hello, you Super mom of an Awesome autistic child.

If my experience and words speak to you, I invite you to learn about my mentoring service for autism parents.

Intentional parenting, development, and education for our children is my passion. My purpose is to empower you with the emotional and practical support you need to thrive as you reach for every outcome you dream of for you and your child’s life.

Learn More