It was a perfect day in the fall of 2011. The air was crisp, the sun was shining, and there were no clouds in the sky. But this was no ordinary autumn day; it was Halloween, every child’s favorite holiday. Little did I know it was about to get awful. After some preparations, involving arranging a playdate and finding a costume that pleased my finicky child, I headed out the door armed with my camera and my two-year old daughter dressed as a penguin. As soon as we arrived for the parade in a crowded pedestrian street it became evident that my daughter was the only child on the block who was not having a marvelous time. The crowd was distressing, the costume was bothersome, and she had no interest in asking for candies. She had tantrums the entire time, clung to me like velcro, and was inconsolable until we were in the car heading home. Since we shared a ride with her playdate’s family, I was mortified that we had to cut their enjoyment short. I was also resentful that my attempt to entertain her was infelicitous, and most of all I was clueless as to why my child was different than everyone else.
Fast forward nine months later, I am told that my daughter has Autism Disorder, which left me speechless. How could this be? I renounced my career to be at home for the first three years of her life for optimal brain development; I avoided vaccinations because of the possible link to autism, and it happened anyway. My worst nightmare as a parent became true, and I had to confront it. I immediately researched the internet, devoured lots of books, contacted associations, and taught myself everything there was to know on the subject. On hindsight I have to admit that it was a relief to have a label, because it meant to know what I was dealing with, and to inform myself on what to do about it.
My daughter was receiving Occupational and behavioral therapy since the year prior to the diagnosis. She had already improved tremendously thanks to her dedicated therapists, and I religiously implemented all the tips and suggestions offered by them. I combined what I had learned from being present at her seventy-one sessions with additional techniques that were taught to parents of kids on the spectrum, and I continued to work with her for one and a half hours daily in our basement turned to sensory gym.
It became natural within a very short time that I would pursue a career as an Occupational Therapist. I have seen firsthand what a tremendous difference can be achieved with perseverance. The most important thing I have learned is lots and lots of patience that I didn’t even know I had. I also learned that I was stronger than I knew: I went through the three stages of grief in one week. Even my daughter’s therapist was surprised because not only did I lack support, but I had to convince family members still in denial, and then comfort them when they finally accepted reality. When I made my career choice public, some people have questioned my mental sanity. Why would anybody in their right state of mind want to work every day with difficult toddlers who are uncooperative? I can only explain that it is a calling from a place deep within, and it is fueled by the desire to spread the hope to other families who are living with ASD. We are told that autism is incurable, and I certainly do not pretend to be an expert in the matter, but I am open minded enough to accept that, even if not treatable, the condition can improve significantly and sometimes disappear entirely.
I have seen for myself that changes were slow at times and there were even some setbacks, but I was encouraged to persist by the improvements in my daughter’s behavior. Even for me it was hard to believe at times that this was the same child that in the past would find it difficult to wear a new pair of shoes without flailing and thrashing about, or have to obsessively open and close every door three times, or segregate objects by color. Now that I have learned a lot about sensory diet, and I applied the strategies her therapist taught me, I understand that children with special needs can overcome sensory issues and function better. To be absolutely sure that O.T. is a good career fit, I shadowed therapists in the pediatric mental health setting and school based (elementary). The patients appeared much more centered and focused after walking on the figure eight, or picking objects with tweezers from a swinging taco sling. To obtain such remarkable improvement within a one hour session reinforced my desire to be an Occupational Therapist, as I want to make a lasting impact in someone’s life. Coming from a background in alternative health, I am in line with the holistic approach that Occupational Therapy has towards rehabilitation and assisting the patient in achieving independence. My ten years of practice as a Massage Therapist and more recently as an Acupuncturist, reinforced the sentiment that patient-centered treatment is not only rewarding but also mutually beneficial. I learn as much from my patients as they do from me, and I love to be of service to others.