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What Autism Does to a Mother

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Typically, Nicole's social life would flourish in September when her girls returned to school. Her calendar was always packed with playdates, volunteer work, and plans to meet other moms for coffee. But Ryan's fierce tantrums in public places — even just on quick errands to Target — crushed any return to normalcy. Before summer break, she chatted happily with other moms at school drop-off. Now, she preferred to be invisible on school grounds.

"Friends didn't know how to react," says Nicole. "In passing, I was constantly asked, 'How are you doing?' I dreaded this question. 'Fine,' was a lie, and I needed more than 10 seconds to really answer. And I didn't want to break down in front of the girls anyway. So I'd walk into school with big, dark sunglasses on and leave quickly to avoid conversation. In the car, the tears poured out."

Gone, too, was the weekly playgroup Nicole hosted at her house for church friends and their kids. Like many children with autism, Ryan has heightened sensitivities to strangers as well as to noisy environments; these factors either set off screaming and crying fits or caused him to hide. Nicole knew that the playgroup would be uncomfortable, possibly intolerable, for her son. "I didn't want people looking at Ryan acting up and thinking, Wow, that's really awful," she says. "I was protective of my son and didn't want him to be judged." Sometimes when visitors came over, Ryan retreated to his parents' bedroom upstairs, pulling Nicole with him. "I'd have a family over for a barbecue and instead of socializing, I hid in my bedroom with Ryan," says Nicole. "If I tried to leave the room, he'd get mad and push me back in."

While a few friends hung in there, the phone calls from others faded. "Life went on for them," says Nicole. "But without the phone ringing, and without being able to run errands because of Ryan's behavior, my days were filled with silence." Nicole often cried to her husband, Tim, about the loneliness. Tim, 38, who owns a contracting business, realized how suffocating the situation was for his wife. "I had work as an escape," he says. "But autism was every minute of Nicole's day."

A part of Nicole simply shut down. "I did put up a wall," she says. "When someone reached out, I didn't jump. I just felt like, 'There's nothing anyone can do to fix this.'"

"I kept turning down help"

After the prayer vigil, Nicole's "wall" began to crack. "I felt so cared for during the vigil, which was very healing," she says. But it was a new friend, Sue Stigler, who finally convinced Nicole to truly drop her defenses.

Sue and Nicole were in the same social circle at church, but they weren't close. So it surprised Nicole when the 41-year-old mom, who has a son Ryan's age, took on the role of best friend. Sue began showing up at her door throughout the summer wanting to help — she stopped by with uplifting greeting cards, cookies, chocolate, and offers to shop for groceries and even to clean Nicole's house. "I kept turning her down," says Nicole. "I wanted help, but I felt like I was drowning in everything I needed."

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