When my son, T, was much younger, I chased milestones. It was sweaty and frustrating—and they didn’t come easily. Yep, those developmental milestones that tell us, as parents, when our child should roll over, sit up, stand up, walk and talk. No one told me that hitting milestones is generally an organic process, and as a first-time mom, I didn’t know any better.
There’s a wide range of typical, and my son would often just make the cut. At six months, he would sit up, but it was shaky. At around 15 to 16 months, he had some words, but I could count them on one hand. Shared communication and self-feeding were incredibly challenging, and I wasn’t surprised when he received an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis at three years old. I was exhausted and scared. I knew nothing about parenting a child with autism.
Regrettably, I set random deadlines for when T (and me) should achieve certain goals. By six, he would be able to write all his letters legibly. By eight, he would no longer have an IEP. When the goals weren’t met, I blamed myself, pushed T harder and wallowed in self-pity. If I had the chance, I would gently tell my younger self this: You can’t force milestones. Focus on growth and your relationship and the rest will fall into place.
I still have goals for T, but they are not tied to deadlines like they once were. He’s on his timeline, and I’ve learned to respect it because he continues to surprise me. Mothering and watching T become a delightful young boy, I’ve learned to be kinder to myself and revel in a different set of milestones. As a parent of a child with a disability, these milestones tell me that T and I are doing OK.
7 milestones that matter to me in parenting a child with autism
1. Communicating his needs and wants
Like saying, “I’m hungry” or “I’m freezing!” As a toddler, T was quiet. I didn’t witness the terrible twos and threes. I’d ask questions and make a lot of observations to better understand his needs and wants. When he first began voicing his needs, it was a celebratory moment. It told me others didn’t have to guess, or even worse, assume what he needed and wanted.
2. Showing curiosity
Like asking, “What does that mean?” Not surprisingly, we have some of our best conversations in the car. T also loves music, and we listen to all types. Songs provide a rich variety of language: poetic, figurative, slang, etc. We were listening to Maren Morris’ “My Church” where she describes driving on an open road and listening to music as her form of “church.” T wanted to know what she meant. And Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”—try to explain that one to a ten-year-old. A curiosity for learning and the ability to pick up nuances in language is important and are joys for a mother to witness.
3. Showing that he missed me
Like calling me when he’s on vacation with his Dad. It’s always nice to be missed! Every year, he goes to Vermont with his Dad and he’s never called me. This year, he called several times to check-in and see what I was doing. No obligations or reminders. Just love.
4. Being attentive
Like telling me the traffic light’s green or telling me to stop looking at my phone. Being in the car has always put T at ease. He enjoys road trips, any type of emergency and construction vehicles and watching the passing scenery. As I responded to a text at a red light, he piped up that the light was green—and that I shouldn’t be texting and driving. At that moment, I knew he understood the rules of the road and that drivers should concentrate on driving, first and foremost.
5. Voicing his preferences
Like asserting that he wants to be included. I was talking with my partner about hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail this fall. We discussed renting a cabin could be a cool experience. Although I thought he wasn’t listening, T emphatically announced he wanted to be included. As a young kid, he didn’t often voice his preferences and mostly went along with whatever we were doing. This told me he didn’t want to be left out, and he enjoyed being a part of the group when activities were of interest to him.
6. Showing independency
Like riding his bike around the block by himself. As a younger child, I needed to be within eyesight or he would get anxious and look for me. These days, when we’re home, he still prefers that I’m somewhat nearby, but has progressed to feeling comfortable if I’m within earshot. After some discussion and assurances to remain outside, he rode his bike solo around the neighborhood. That bike ride was a milestone on his journey to increased independence for many reasons: following the rules of the road, navigating any chance encounters with neighbors and returning home within a certain timeframe.
7. Sticking up for me
Like saying, “Don’t talk about my mom that way!” I get all the feels whenever I think of this. T was swimming at a recent get-together. A family member was telling a funny story from the past and said dramatically, “I was so mad at Jane…” That was all T needed to hear. He swam up to the person, splashed them and then yelled at him to stop talking about me that way. His show of loyalty to me (albeit misguided) was his way of sticking up for me when I wasn’t there to defend myself.
Parenting a child with autism is no easy feat, and for a while, the fear of T not achieving certain goals within a specific timeline had me under immeasurable pressure. But now, for me, all these milestones are reasons to celebrate. Cue the happy tears.