I graduated high school a year early to start college at age 17. While my previous classmates were going to dances, football games, and enjoying that one last year of youth, I was hitting the books.
In 5 years at Kent State University, I earned a double major in Psychology and Sociology, completed a research thesis, graduated with honors and Magna Cum Laude.
My focus and rigor as a student meant I was a strong candidate who had my pick of numerous exceptional doctorate programs, finally settling on the University of Miami. After 7 years of study, research, clinical rounds, publishing, a thesis, a dissertation, and completion of a year-long residency, I was accepted into a 2-year highly sought-after post-doctorate fellowship. Since then, I continued to learn, publish, and develop my expertise and career for 15+ years.
I was a machine. I was determined. I had a plan.
Until my path took a significant detour with the birth of my son in 2015. Of course, having a child changes everything. But my little man was different from day 1.
Those early days were rough; he didn’t sleep longer than 45 minutes at a time, a physical deformity made it difficult for him to eat - he was tired, he was hungry, he was uncomfortable, and he struggled – A LOT. And I struggled to figure out how to help this child – my entire focus had to shift to caring for this sweet helpless little being who had difficulty with the most basic aspects of life.
That was the beginning...
As a Psychologist, I started to notice the signs early – unlike other babies, he didn’t want to look into the mirrors that are on all the baby toys, he didn’t look at our faces when we held him, and he didn’t respond to his name, even as his first birthday came and went. Because of my knowledge, I was able to get him on a waitlist and evaluated early to receive his diagnosis of Moderate-to-Severe Autism by age 2. Also, because of my training, I knew that the early years are critical for his development, so I sought out every resource, every therapy, and every technique to help my little man learn how to function in this world.
If you’re still with me and my story, you might be wondering why I’m telling you about all this and what it has to do with work.
Well, despite my 12 years of post-secondary education, 2-years specialized post-doctoral training, and 15 years of experience as a leadership and organization development expert, I HAVE LEARNED SO MUCH MORE ABOUT LEADERSHIP FROM PARENTING THIS SPECIAL LITTLE DUDE than I did during all those years of formal education and experience.
As a parent of an autistic child, the leadership lessons start when you hear that diagnosis. Most special needs parents have read Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley (https://rebrand.ly/g6m80yx), which is a wonderful metaphor of the experience of learning that your vision of the future you held is no longer possible and engaging in the necessary agility and mindset shift to accept and find the opportunity in the new reality and your new direction.
As a parent of an autistic child, developing foresight and the ability to anticipate consequences many steps ahead are critical to ensure your child has what they need to be successful in new and changing environments.
As a parent of an autistic child, it is necessary to develop an exceptional level of emotional intelligence. You must understand your own emotional states and triggers and develop extraordinary emotion regulation skills to maintain calm and poise in the face of high emotion and conflict. You must also become deeply skilled in understanding another’s emotions and what triggers them.
As a parent of an autistic child, you will learn quickly that a “tough love” command-and-control style – do as I say or you will be punished – JUST WON’T WORK. You must learn to slow down, develop patience, and listen deeply to your child to understand their experience and perspective – even when they can’t speak a single word.
You must learn to meet the child where they are – not where they “should be.” You must pay attention to their needs and motivators and adjust your parenting style to meet them if you want to help them develop and grow.
As a parent of an autistic child, you must see the potential they have and relentlessly help them to develop to their fullest capacity – whatever that is for them.
As a parent of an autistic child, you have to become a detector and cultivator of strengths – nurture and build on what they are passionate about and are good at. Punishment just doesn’t work to change their behavior or help them to flourish. You must be that child’s personal cheerleader and promoter – constantly providing reinforcement for their positive behavior and celebrating signs of progress.
As a parent of an autistic child, you must be optimistic about the future and maintain a positive attitude (despite the internal worry and fear you may have of the unknown) to provide your child the environment they need to be successful and thrive in a world that is not designed for them.
The leadership lessons are many.
My growth as a leader has been exponential in the 6+ years since I was given the privilege to parent and lead this special child into the future. It hasn’t been easy. He didn’t speak a word until he was 4 years old. And it takes an extreme amount of time, repetition, and support for him to learn basic life skills that other children learn simply by watching what their parents do – washing his hands, putting on his clothes, using a fork, brushing his teeth, and potty training (to name a few).
But you know, despite the odds, he never gives up. He’s learned many of the skills of daily living to help him to be independent. He not only speaks now but reads at a second-grade level (he’s in kindergarten)! And he has taught himself to identify all the countries of the world – and their flags! What he has overcome is an inspiration to me to keep going – personally and professionally – because I can’t give up either.
Over the month of April, National Autism Awareness Month, I will dive deeper into the leadership lessons I've learned as an autism parent here on our blog The Leadership Lens - sign up for our Newsletter below to be notified of new posts.
Tell us about the leadership lessons you've learned in the comments.