Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid!

Cynthia Dermody

Mom blogger Gina Gallagher and

daughter Katie.

There are lots of different outlooks a mom can take when it comes to raising a child with autism. Some moms hate it and want to find a cure. Other moms accept and embrace it.

I'll be talking with CafeMoms more about that all this month -- April is Autism Awareness Month. But today Gina Gallagher of the blog Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid! share her unique perspective on the autism issue.

Gallagher's autistic daughter, Katie, isn't a toddler anymore --she's 13 -- but because so many CafeMoms are fans, I asked this imperfect mom of an imperfect daughter in for a visit.

And she doesn't mind a bit that I say that about her.

In fact, Gallagher and her sister (mom of a 15 year old with bipolar disorder) are leading a whole "Movement of Imperfection," which she shares more about below.

What's a "Movement of Imperfection"? Isn't that a mean thing to say about autistic kids?

I'm not singling out kids with disabilities as imperfect. We're all imperfect. As part of our book, my sister (my co-author) and I created the "Movement of Imperfection" to invites all parents (even those of average kids or kids with disabilities) to brag about why they're proud of their kids. For example,  I once met a mother who bragged, "My autistic child told his first lie."

My response was: "Now why doesn't Hallmark have a line of cards for that?"

I always thought autism was something to take seriously. How can you laugh about it?

Raising a child with autism can be a stressful experience. Humor is a very powerful coping mechanism that offers some powerful health benefits. My ability to find humor in things has helped me get through some of my family's darkest days.

My daughter's view of the world is unique and refreshing and often times, very funny.  She definitely follows the beat of her own drum, as I realized one morning when I was waiting for her to get ready for school. She said, "Sorry, I'm late Mom. I was practicing my funny faces in the mirror."

And sometimes it's very funny to realize how different my life is from other parents of non-autistic children. I had a friend say to me one day. "You're so lucky your kids don't play sports. It's expensive." I responded with "And you're lucky your kids don't have issues. Therapists are no bargain either."

Tell me about Katie.

She was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age 8, but looking back, I can spot the behavior much earlier in toddlerhood. She was extremely verbal and I thought she was gifted. She did have some quirks -- flapping her hands, watching TV out of the sides of her eyes, and lining up her toys. I had no idea she was exhibiting signs of autism.

She's now in a school for kids with special needs and has flourished. She has friends, but still struggles with initiating contact -- calling her pals on the phone or arranging times to get together.

So which side of the autism divide are you on?

In all honesty, at first I was in the "I hate this, it's not fair" category. I had a very difficult time accepting Katie's autism. I got caught up in the perfect child syndrome. It was devastating for me to learn that my child was not only not perfect, but was facing a difficult life ahead of her.

It was particularly hard for me to watch her play sports. I was a very good athlete and had a very hard time accepting that my child would rather catch butterflies in the net.  I felt embarrassed and ashamed. At one point, I thought Katie's autism was my greatest failure. I would have done anything to make it go away. I wanted to cure her.

But then I started talking to parents of children with a wide range of disabilities and I began to see Katie in a whole new light. Somewhere along the line, I saw the absurdity of the way we parents judge our children and looked at my daughter for who she was -- a beautiful, quirky, and happy child. It wasn't until I stopped judging her by my own expectations and society's unrealistic expectations of perfection that I could see this. I now believe her autism is the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me.

Wow -- a lot of CafeMoms feel exactly the opposite. Please explain ...

She's helped me be more accepting of others, to appreciate little things in life (like the time she first tied her shoes -- at age 10) and to maintain my priorities about what's really important in life. I think the greatest gift an autistic or special child can give to a parent is the gift of compassion. 

The worst part is getting others to see her the way I do -- to go beyond her quirks and get to know the beautiful person inside. I do think things are changing and I personally feel that the more I talk about Katie's Asperger's, it helps lesson the stigma. I really don't think people will understand Asperger's if we don't talk about.

What's one of the funniest autism moments from Katie's toddler years?

I took her to McDonald's, my favorite place as a kid, and ordered her a Happy Meal. She didn't touch any of it (naturally I ate it for her). She looked at me and said, "Happy Meals don't make me happy, Mommy."  She's so different than I was as a kid and sometimes it's just funny.

Tell me about your book -- why should moms of autistic children read it?

Our book, Shut Up About...Your Perfect Kid!, takes a  humorous, heartwarming look at raising a special child in a world pre-occupied with perfection. It's often referred to as a support group within a book, offering hope to those who feel like they are alone.  We self-published the first edition and have a revised edition coming out in August 2010 with Three Rivers Press, a Random House imprint.

Though our book is about special needs children, it's message is a universal one that all parents can relate to: stop judging your children by today's ridiculous standards of perfection and your own expectations and appreciate the gifts and beauty that every child -- abled or challenged -- has to bear.


++Are you the mom of an autistic child? Do you approach your child's autism with Gina's outlook or do you have different feelings on the matter?

Visit these popular groups: Autism/Asperger's/PDD Awareness, Autism, Mercury Poisoning and Everything in between and Parenting Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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