The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. When we don’t have that, we shape-shift and turn into chameleons; we hustle for the worthiness we already possess.
As many challenges that come with life on the autism spectrum, there are just as many surprising gifts. It has been ringing true through the years that even though we may adjust a focused behaviour of Ben’s deemed “socially inappropriate” it just gets replaced with a new one. But right along side, the gift is always there. Isn’t that life, an ebb and flow of highs and lows, victories, failures, mistakes and learning?
Before we even had a diagnoses of autism for Ben, I remember feeling like there was something off. I have memories of thinking how he “didn’t fit”. Our bonding wasn’t happening. He had zero eye contact, didn’t snuggle or cry. I remember telling a dear friend, ” I don’t think he likes me.” As he grew, the disconnect became wider and deeper. When we would pick him up from children’s church, all of the other babies/toddlers would be together and there would be Ben, alone under the table spinning the wheel on a toy car or fixated on some color in the carpet that none of us could even see.
In 2008, we went on a family vacation with some friends. We were at the beach. Water is Ben’s best friend. In the water, so many of his sensory issues disappear and it makes him very happy. When Ben is happy there is much hand flapping, jumping up and down, his voice gets louder so anyone close by can hear what we refer to as one of his superpowers, “BABBLING”. It’s not really babbling though, because he is actually running through a myriad of movies and tv scenes that he has memorized. Well, we were at the pool of our hotel and Ben was very happy. He and Payton were around seven and eight years old. There were two other boys swimming who were maybe a year or two older than Payton. Ben was doing his happy dance, loudly professing the joy of being in the water….you know…he was showing up and being himself. I got a little nervous as I could see the two boys laughing at him. Just fit in. Just fit in. Yes, I said it over and over. At one point, all four kiddos were near each other and I heard one little boy say to the other, ” What is wrong with him?” The other responded, ” I don’t know, I think he’s retarded.” I had envisioned this scenario many times hoping that when and if it did happen, I would have some readiness in my heart but nothing prepares you to hear that word describing your child. Before I could respond, Payton was already to the rescue. She said something to the effect about her brother being “aw stratistic” and that he loves water and was smart and could memorize movies better than they could…… I wish I could say that it was at that point I decided belonging was better than fitting in but I thought part of my role was to help my kids be liked, somewhat cool and popular, you know, to fit in. It would take a little more time for belonging and not just fitting in to become a foundational value for myself and for our family.
What I have learned from Ben about belonging versus fitting in.
Fitting in is showing up and evaluating what outward behaviour is necessary in order to be accepted. It causes you to lose special pieces of yourself or to add pieces that just don’t match up to who you truly are. You may fit in for the moment but true connection usually doesn’t happen and values tend to be compromised.
Belonging is one of my favorite words. It’s meaning is something I have searched for my whole life. There are many events and things that I have felt apart of that have been built on shared experiences of fun, joy and interests but often would feel alone even though I was in a room full of people. Being apart of something counts but belonging opens a way for connection, compassion and freedom. Belonging is being ourselves in all of our glory, our quirks, our blind spots, our hopes, fears and awkwardness. It’s about being seen and known from the inside out. And allowing others the same opportunity to belong. Ben has taught me that when you are yourself, with no “hustle for worthiness” that is actually when you can really get your needs met, really grow, really learn and overcome and in return, really help meet the needs of others and give them the space to grow, learn and overcome.
A challenge of autism is not being able to read social cues but the gift is not being able to read rejection in most situations. When we were heading back to our hotel room that day from the pool, Ben had just been speaking for about two years and in his way of expression he left saying, ” I have two friends who are boys today. I think they liked me.” I remember Payton and I giving each other a look of acknowledgement that he had not been scarred in the way that she and I had been that day. Basically, Ben has made these words his life’s mantra and I have much to imitate in him. ” Everyone loves me because I am Ben and today is the best day ever!”
If belonging begins with self-acceptance and grows into the absolute belief that you are enough which gives you the courage to risk being vulnerable, authentic and imperfect, then Ben has opened wide the door to my belonging.