By Michele Portlock
My 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of 14. One of her younger brothers was 9 years old and diagnosed at the same time. I felt such relief upon hearing their diagnoses. I had spent so many years trying to figure out how best to support their very individual needs. We had seen multiple psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, and other specialists. My oldest was initially diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and clinical anxiety. My son was originally diagnosed with potential mood disorders. And although these diagnoses were correct, I also knew that something else was at play here. I wasn’t looking for more diagnosis, just THE diagnoses that could explain the struggles we had experienced for many years.
I am a mother of four children, and each has come with their own unique attributes. But my two autistic children came into this world needing very little sleep as babies and toddlers. Yes. I was tired all the time. I also felt extreme frustration with myself as a mom for not being able to fully meet the needs of my children. I studied and learned all about anxiety and mental health. I learned tools that could be incorporated into my children’s lives. And into my own life as well. But I wasn’t equipped to handle the hour-long meltdowns my daughter was experiencing daily. Or the urge of my son to bolt and run in public places. I often felt embarrassed by what I perceived to be my lack of ability to guide my children. Every parenting book I read touched on the idea of modeling the behavior you wished to see in your own children. And although this is true, I felt like a failure because somehow my children had strong ideas of their own, mixed with specific struggles and I could not crack the code.
Once their diagnoses were received, I cried. Not because I was sad, but because I felt a softening for what I had perceived as parent failures. I had done the best I could with what I knew at the time. And like Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Starting with the very day of their diagnoses, I began to immerse myself in autism research, books, and articles. I loved what I was learning. Because knowledge is power. I didn’t feel that power, but I felt a sense of comfort in knowing I could genuinely help meet the needs of my children with all that I was learning.
A few years after their diagnoses, I enrolled in a Special Education Masters program through Arizona State University. The focus of the program was on behavior. I studied hard. And a whole new understanding of autism and autism behaviors began to click for me. The ‘why’ behind behavior. I knew I wanted to share my knowledge with others. I created Navigating the Spectrum with Michele Portlock the summer after I graduated from my program. The goal of my business is to help guide other parents of autistic children in a healthy and meaningful direction. A direction that is family focused. That is in the best interest of not only the autistic child, but the family as a whole. Because I’m a believer that although autism may be an individual diagnoses, it effects each individual member of a family. And that’s where I come in. I help parents to set up effective systems in their homes that help to create a higher level of well-being for everyone.
I also have a podcast under the same name: Navigating the Spectrum. My podcast consists of interviews with autistic individuals, professionals, and families alike. I had the special experience of recording my first podcast with my oldest autistic daughter Brielle. She is spectacular. I may be biased, but I’m okay with that.
I have learned to embrace what is as opposed to wishing away time dreaming of what could have been. My children are who they are, and I deeply appreciate what I have learned just by being their mother. And I don’t mistake that appreciation for complete enjoyment. It’s been a particularly challenging road, and yet a particularly rewarding one as well. My love runs deep. And my connection to the autism community is a source of great joy for me. So, we keep pushing forward together as individuals and as a family. And we look for all the small opportunities to celebrate successes along the way. And when those successes come along, man, do we celebrate.