Sarah is a beautiful three-year-old. She loves Honey Nut Cheerios, nursery rhymes, and playing on the playground. But lately, it almost breaks her mother’s heart to see Sarah out there with the other kids. Newly diagnosed with autism, Sarah’s playground time is less a time of carefree play and childhood “firsts” and more a marker of how quickly ‘normal’ has slipped away.
Sarah is regressing into a world of little communication, rigid routines, and odd obsessions. Right now, she’s fascinated with spinning objects and fixates on the old-fashioned carousel in the center of the playground. She has no interest in playing with other children, and loud noises upset her to the point of tantrums. Her mother is both crushed and defensive, a first-time mom in a playgroup of seemingly-perfect moms and children.
Where is her playful, loving, happy little girl? What happened to the girl who ran up to her father for a hug when he got home? (Now she rarely meets his eyes and wriggles fiercely out of his grasp.) Sarah’s parents love their daughter, but they are awash in broken dreams, hearts aching for the child who once was and bewildered by the child who has taken her place.
A special needs diagnosis, whether autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or something less common, sends shockwaves through a family…shockwaves that reverberate for a long time. When a child is born, parents immerse themselves in the present and joyfully imagine the future. A girl’s father dreams of the day he will walk his little girl down the aisle, and her mother anticipates the birthday parties, play dates, and mother-daughter talks that lie ahead.
But a special needs diagnosis radically changes—and sometimes ends—these dreams. Parents need to give themselves permission to grieve those lost dreams, not unlike mourning the future lost when a loved one dies too soon. Be patient with yourself. Grief has no timetable and follows no formula. (A parent who discovers her son will be born with Down Syndrome experiences a loss different from that of a parent whose child has regressive autism.) Family members—your spouse, the child’s siblings, grandparents —also will experience grief in their own ways and times. Be open to professional guidance and support so your family stays strong under stress.