I’m fine.

Such a conditioned response I’ve used for the entirety of my life no matter the situation.

Served cold food that tastes dreadful – my response to the waiter when asked about my meal is always the same, “it’s fine, thank you.”

Someone terribly hurts my feelings or I’m physically injured due to no fault of my own and again, I dismiss the pain by saying, “it’s okay, I’m fine.”

Honestly, what does that even mean and why is it so damn hard to admit that I’m not fine? Perhaps it’s the confrontation I’d prefer to avoid. Coming from a childhood full of trauma as a result of speaking up, I suppose I am just conditioned to bury my true feelings and ‘get over it,’ as I was told to do.

Living this way is not ideal but it’s tough to change deep rooted behaviors engrained in you for a lifetime. However, leave it to your children to place a mirror in front of your face that hits you with a hard reality – you’re unknowingly repeating the cycle of dismissing feelings with them.

My 19-year-old son has nonverbal autism and complex needs requiring a lot of support and assistance. Knowing his age will soon dictate a release from traditional services and programs, I’ve created my own day programming plan allowing him to interact more within the community and broaden his level of independence by trying new things.

Among the list of new or revisited experiences from his youth are horse riding and occupational therapy.

We first visited the horse farm a few weeks ago and upon entry into the barn, he appeared very anxious. The owner, who is a patient and wonderful woman told us this was often the response of most kids for the first few visits and that he could take all the time he needed to warm up to the idea of being around the horses.

Attempting to comfort my son, I continually paced the barn with him and repeated “you’re okay,” “you’re fine,” and “no need to worry, you’re safe,” which didn’t seem to calm him or reduce his level of anxiety.

Days later, at his OT evaluation, he demonstrated similar behaviors of panic and uncertainty. Again, I did my best to encourage him and soothe his worries by reminding him he was fine.

On the drive home from that appointment, I kept thinking about these scenarios and wondered why he seemed more agitated as time went on instead of calmer. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks … he’s NOT fine! It’s clear, the more I kept telling him he was only irritated him more.

That may sound obvious to everyone reading this but honestly, I thought I was helping him, completely oblivious that I was doing the exact opposite.

As parents, we do and give what we know based on how we were raised and what we’ve learned along the way. But we never stop growing or evolving throughout our lifetime – when we know better, we do better.

So, on our next trip to the farm, I implemented an entirely new mindset. The moment we got out of the car, and I saw my son’s apprehension take hold, I addressed him in this way: “honey, it looks like you are feeling scared and maybe uncertain about approaching the horses and that’s understandable. If you want, you can take my hand and lead me to the barn at your own pace. You decide what you feel comfortable with, okay?”

He paused in place, taking in my words before reaching out for my hand. He led me to the barn and slowly walked through the thick sand toward the horses. He extended two fingers and briefly stroked the bridge of Herbie’s nose.

It was one of the most emotional moments of this parenting journey so far for a multitude of reasons. It’s always amazing to me that not only does he understand every word I say (which is an argument I’ve had with medical experts & therapists for his entire life) but for a person unable to explain or express his feelings and emotions with words, he always acknowledges when I’ve gotten it right by responding with his body.

He finally felt seen AND heard.

The first official OT session was yesterday and again, I let him know as we entered the building that I could see he was a little reluctant to go inside and perhaps was nervous about their expectations of him. I validated his feelings and told him if he needed me, I would be right there.

When the therapist came to get him from the waiting room, he reached out and locked his hand in mine. I glanced at the therapist then back at my son before asking if he preferred I come back with him this first time. He squeezed my hand tighter as if to say ‘ yes mom, I’m scared and I need you.’

So dear reader, I’m publicly sharing this parenting fail turned beautiful success because it’s important to acknowledge the big and small wins of not only our children but for us as caregivers too.

The job of parenting / caregiving is NOT EASY and as we all know, there are no manuals given out by the hospital the day our newborns are handed to us nor on the day of their autism diagnosis.

The only education we have is through past experiences from our own upbringing, pearls of wisdom & advice from others and, in my opinion, the most impactful teachable moments come from our kids.

Even though my son can’t verbally describe what he’s feeling, his body language is always clear and needs to be appreciated & validated.

Now… I’ll be working hard at eliminating “I’m fine” from my own vocabulary!