Rearing Charles

How the Murry Family Taught Me to Parent My Children with Autism

The gift of great stories is that they are there when you reach for them, laying a bedrock of trust in an uncertain world. When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, I gaped in disbelief at the kindness, competence, and acceptance displayed by Meg’s mother. Though I thought at the time that she was more fairy tale than role model, Mrs. Murry quietly took up residence in my aspirations.

Here was a brilliant woman who was also a dazzling mother, never giving into the temptations to let the children fall prey to their weaknesses or to let them hide or waste their strengths. Parenting was Mrs. Murry’s heart work as much as science. She wouldn’t let go of the truth of her gifted daughter and her beyond brilliant son.

For the first six years of my son’s life, I had no idea that his strong and unusual sensory needs and brilliant but difficult-to-understand speech were signs of his autism. In the vacuum outside the enclave of diagnosis, I could find two loud options: Join the braggarts in the competitive parenting camp, or, Join the complainers in the parents-first camp.

One set of acquaintances was forever boasting that their child ate peppers and broccoli. The other was forever whining that their child’s snow days messed up their plans for day drinking. I withdrew from these parenting circles, not feeling as though my child should earn his keep with accomplishments nor that I should numb myself to his childhood.

I tried natural parenting groups, but they tended to fall into the organic version of the competitors, Magical Thinkers (there’s an oil for that/you are sick because you ate or thought something wrong) and the whiners, Boundary-free Parents (parenting is so hard, so let’s not and say we did).

I managed to find a few middle-of-the-road parents in those early years, and they were kind to us and loved us even though we were weird.

Did I mention? We were weird. So very strange. So very different from our friends in ways they never saw.

They were sleeping through the night years before my children got down to only one nightly wake up each. They were upset over 5 minute fits of pique while I tried to find a safe and compassionate way through my preschool son’s two-hour screaming meltdowns. They were calming down after instituting consequences while I was rejoicing that we could get the screaming down to 10 minutes if we mirrored our boy. We didn’t know he had autism then, but we knew that he would not accept anything less than total unconditional love from us. He was born with a swift intellect, a discombobulated sensory integration system, and the world’s keenest lie detector.

His sister had early signs, too. She could read at 3 without being taught and without realizing she could do so. She was profoundly sensitive to sound. She was generally sensitive and kind and emotionally fragile. The slightest hint of disapproval broke her heart into ear-splitting wails. A loud toilet or microphone feedback led to screams that any opera singer would envy.

Then there came my twins, whose classic symptoms led us into the world of autism, where we found the language to name our dear children’s needs and the tools to help them flourish.

Suddenly the ways we had changed to accommodate them stood out in relief– the cotton clothes, the sensory bins, the interest-based learning, the concrete thinking, the singing games and dancing and water play and swings and charts and careful, slow naming of emotion– as building blocks that had helped them grow beyond what they might have done otherwise. Embracing our strange life had saved us.

The tendencies that bring both gifts and challenges to a life of autism become exaggerated without loving, intelligent intervention. They pepper a neurodivergent disability with handicaps.

Disabilities (and gifts) might be lifelong, but handicaps needn’t be. Rejection causes a great many of the handicaps in an autism life. If a parent rejects an autistic child, or even hints at it, the pain bounces in on itself, redoubling and buffeting the senses and causing meltdowns and shutdowns. We had avoided many handicaps simply by avoiding the parenting camps.

As I have grown in understanding of my children’s autism, I have realized that the way  between the front lines of the parenting camps was prepared for me by the Murrys.

Mrs. Murry smiled with me when my firstborn seemed to mirror my thoughts. She was with me, steady and firm, when I told my brave, gifted girl that she was good so that she knew that I meant it. It was the Murry and O’Keefe families that sang with us around the table and taught our children touchable faith. They’re the company I keep when I expect that real stars might visit and when I sing over my children the protection in the great love of cherubim.

As autism awareness grows, some of the voices stepping forward are less kind and less faithful and less selfless than my children and I need them to be. The voices of parents playing to the base camps in a parenting performance skew the story towards unmitigated sadness and misery on one end or lack of will to empower their children to overcome handicaps on the other.

There is a better way to talk about parenting autistic children, and that way is modeled in the bedrock of love and acceptance in A Wrinkle in Time (and more broadly in the Time Quintet). Children with autism are good and beautiful and guileless and human. We are good, too, and beautiful and human. Each person deserves compassion. Love is not contingent on a checklist, and it does not deny differences and gifts. Love just is, and you can always find it in our home when you reach for it. It’s what makes us brave like Meg and Charles Wallace.

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