Some of you may know the poem “Welcome to Holland.” For those of you who do not, allow me to explain. Or, if you prefer, you can follow this link to the poem.
“Welcome to Holland,” is a poem written by Emily Kingsley about how it feels to have a child with special needs when you had already prepared for a typical child- like planning a trip to Italy. However, when that day arrives the plane changes its flight plan and lands in Holland, not Italy. “Holland!?” She exclaims. “I didn’t sign up for Holland!” So, she buys manuals for Holland and realizes that it isn’t all that bad, but she knew that she would forever watch everyone in Italy knowing that it was there she was meant to land.
After reading “Welcome to Holland” for the first time, I was brought to tears. I felt an instant connection to the author. She had beautifully articulated what I had just started to feel as I began my anxiety fueled ascent to “Destination Unknown.” For a while, I read and re-read this essay convincing myself that, yes, Holland is so very special, and I need not mourn the fact that our stupid plane changed its flight trajectory, not once, but twice when our third son was also diagnosed with Autism. This poem was instrumental in helping me feel less isolated. Clearly, other parents are out there, wishing they landed in Italy but got Holland instead.
What I came to realize is that our travels would never be exclusive to Holland.
The first time I felt our flight change its course was when my middle son was 6 months old. Like most mothers, I just stared at his face all the time. I remember falling in love with him, just as I did with my first son. I was in awe with the fact that my heart was able to hold so much love. I had wondered if it was even possible to love a second child as much as I loved my first.
As the months went by, I recall being curious about how his eyes would startle wide open and with fixation when I took a picture of him. He seemed oddly obsessed to the camera and its flash. He responded similarly to all things electronic. Overall, his facial expressions showed me a boy receiving the world around him much differently than other children his age. He didn’t babble, point, or turn his head when spoken to. By 14 months, he had only 10 words. So, like a good mom, I had him evaluated and he qualified for speech therapy.
When my son first started speech therapy, I had already done independent research online about my concerns with his development. I was worried. I recall nervously observing the speech therapist as she worked with him. I always hated how she spoke loudly at his face trying to create eye contact. After several visits, I found the courage to inquire about her knowledge of Autism and if she recognized any characteristics similar in my son. She was usually evasive which terrified me. I needed her to say, “No worries, it’s simply a speech delay.” Deep down, hiding in the most secretive places of my soul, I knew we were most likely on our way to a spectrum diagnosis. Until then, I grasped at everything to prove my instincts wrong. I also held him tightly as he slept. I was convinced that my love for him would “cure” him. I was sure my love alone would work. But by morning, I’d see nothing had changed and to keep his speech therapy appointments. I remember being so frightened and anxious. How did we miss landing in Italy? What happened? Why couldn’t we have just landed where everyone else lands? Frankly, it would be so much easier.
Fast forward, thirteen years I have learned that daily new flight plans are our normal. I take off each day on a journey to places known and unknown. Our plane has perfected the art of consistently changing flight plans and riding them out better by the day. Some of the flights have become smoother. Often, we hit way too much turbulence. Some even crash. So far, none have destroyed us. We have survived because we learned to accept the unpredictability of a land in which we did not expect to live.
I think back to when I first read the “Welcome to Holland” essay and want to tell my younger self, “KEEP YOUR SEAT BELT ON AT ALL TIMES!!!” I want to alert her that she will experience so much in many lands. She will not have a life absent of joy, laughter and celebration! And that her tears will be abundant not from sadness alone, but from fierce joy when she sees her sons overcome challenges that come with Autism. Her tears will be the recipe to developing a thicker skin, a softer heart and great ability for compassion and advocacy.
One of the most extraordinary gifts she will receive is witnessing all these newly developed attributes in her sons. She will be astounded by their ability to self advocate and show compassion. I will implore with her that she must always accept Changing Flight Plans even when they exhaust and frustrate her. Acceptance is not only a required practice in each land, but it will help these lands to feel more familiar, more manageable and not so scary. Her acceptance will push aside fear and doubt. She will grow to love raising her children in not just one land but as a world traveler. And her love for them will be the fuel that carries them to each new Kingdom.