70: My Detour to Destiny

70: My Detour to Destiny

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

My Detour to Destiny

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

~William James

Growing up as a pastor’s kid, my parents always said God had a great plan for my life. And I believed it. I always imagined myself living in a lavish four-story home with a white picket fence and a red BMW parked in the driveway. Sure, they were lofty dreams, but why not dream big? After all, I was on my way. I had a successful sales career, a wonderful husband, and a beautiful baby.

Yet inside, I felt unfulfilled. Like something was missing. What could possibly bring me the happiness and fulfillment I longed for?

Like all new parents, my husband and I looked forward to watching our little boy grow and develop. But Jayden’s growth lagged behind. Each well-baby checkup reminded us of another milestone missed. Finally, at two and a half, we took Jayden for diagnostic testing. That’s when we learned the truth.

“Your son has autism.”

My mind began to race. Autism. I’d heard of the word, but what exactly was it? I turned to my husband and said, “Take me to a bookstore.”

As I sat on our basement floor, piles of books and papers scattered all around me, I began to read the painful truth. Book after book contained the same frightening phrases. “Children affected by autism may never speak… prepare yourself for institutions… lifelong disabilities… financial devastation... eighty percent divorce rate.” I began to weep.

My son would never go to a regular school. Never attend college. Never get married or have children. Forget about my picket fence, what about his? I grieved the death of my little boy’s future.

After two heart-wrenching days of darkness and depression, I picked up another book, Applied Behavior Analysis. I flipped through the pages, and a small bit of hope began to rise up within me. “Lovaas’ 1987 UCLA study showed a forty-seven percent recovery rate.” Hope grew into excitement. That would be us.

But through that window of hope, I faced many closed doors. I made phone call after phone call, searching for anyone who could help Jayden. Every call ended with the same disappointing news.

“Sorry, we can’t provide that therapy. It’s too expensive.”

At $1,000 per day for an in-home consultation, how could anyone afford it? Not only was applied behavior analysis (ABA) costly, it was time consuming. All of the books I read strongly recommended forty hours a week of therapy. The obstacles seemed impossible, but I didn’t care. This was my child, and he needed help. I would not give up without a fight.

I became obsessed with learning everything I could about ABA. I studied manuals, read textbooks, searched the Internet. I soon realized that if Jayden was going to receive this therapy, I would have to be the one to provide it.

I seized every opportunity. A local autism expert did some training for an area school district. I convinced her to allow me to come into her home and observe. Then I learned of Dr. Vincent Carbone, a well-respected autism specialist from New York. When Dr. Carbone conducted an ABA workshop, I drove to Chicago. I prayed that this man could teach me how to teach my son. And he did.

We turned our basement into a therapy room, and I spent all my days working with Jayden. I taught him new skills by breaking them down into the smallest of tasks. Sometimes I presented a task hundreds of times before Jayden would master it. Once Jayden accomplished a small skill, we celebrated, and promptly moved on to more complicated ones.

I joined a local support group and met other families affected by autism. As they searched for hope, I shared my experiences. They became interested.

“Can I come to your home and see what you’re doing?”

“Can you assess my child with the assessment you used for Jayden?”

Well, sure. Why not? I certainly didn’t feel qualified, but there was nothing else offered in the area. If they were willing, I was willing.

Before long, a few children from the support group joined our humble classroom in the basement. I trained a couple of college students to help, and together we celebrated as the children made small steps of progress.

But while the children learned, I learned an important lesson as well.

I learned that I loved teaching children with autism. I loved getting down on the floor and playing with them. I loved connecting with a little boy who flapped his arms or rocked back and forth. I felt excited when I made him smile or taught him to speak. Every little milestone was huge, and I felt the same joy when another child conquered a skill as I did with my own son.

I began to see a completely different destiny for myself. It was a future filled with helping children and families affected by autism. I wanted to save parents the agony I went through to find services for my child. Then God opened a door.

Our church decided to convert an old high school building into a community center. I knew just who to call: the church pastor. “Hi Dad, it’s me.” I smiled. “How about letting me open an autism center?”

Today the Quad Cities Autism Center is going strong, and provides children and families hope for a brighter future.

God did not allow me to fall through the cracks by giving me a child with autism. Somehow, that was part of the journey I was meant to be on. He didn’t take me out of the situation, but He certainly has carried me through it.

It’s amazing how life has evolved since those couple of nights when I sat on the floor weeping in despair. I feel more fulfilled today than I ever did on my journey for financial success. I don’t live in a four-story home, or drive a BMW, but I have something even better. I have an indescribable joy and an excitement for the future. White picket fences and luxury cars are great, but I’d rather fulfill my destiny any day.

~Michelle L. Smyth

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