Our Life Before Autism

Every night you fall asleep wrapped up in your favorite teddy bear. Tonight was no different. You snuggled into the bear that is larger than you, wrapped yourself in blankets, and awaited your bedtime stories. We read 3 bedtime stories every night. You usually push for more, but tonight you were fast asleep before I even finished the second book. You do not fall asleep during the stories a lot, but when you do it is always my favorite. I stay a few extra minutes to soak in every ounce of your cuteness. Tonight, I found myself lost in thoughts as I watched you sleep.

I thought about that teddy bear, that you love so much, and I laughed a bit to myself. Four years ago, at one o’clock in the morning on Black Friday, I spotted this bear for the first time. I had been there on the hunt for a power wheels truck that I knew I couldn’t afford if I didn’t find it on sale. I saw this giant teddy in a cart and just knew you needed to have one. I searched for one, only to find out that they had all already been claimed. As I stared at the empty bin, I noticed an abandoned cart with nothing in it but one giant teddy. I stood calmly for a few moments weighing out my options. After enough minutes had passed that I felt confident that no one was coming back, I snatched that bear out of the cart so quick and powerwalked to the giant checkout lane.

Now listen, I am not a thief… really, I am not.

But you see, I needed that bear. I needed this to be the greatest Christmas ever.

You were only 2, so that really should not have been so hard. The thing was you didn’t play with toys like other kiddos did. You didn’t talk, so you couldn’t tell me what you wanted. You never cared about opening gifts, so you didn’t get excited. You didn’t understand who Santa was or any of that.

Looking back now I know that it is because you have autism, but I didn’t know that then.

Back then, I didn’t even know what autism was.

You see, then, I was pretty sure that it was because of me. I was a 22-year-old mama in the thick of a divorce and I was convinced that you really got gypped. You had a dad that chose drugs over parenthood and a mom who had no idea what she was doing. I was failing you… I just knew it.

We lived in a tiny basement apartment. You didn’t have many toys. I worked 3 jobs, so we didn’t have time to do lots of fun stuff together. When we did go out it always ended in disaster. No matter what I did or how much I prepared, there would be a meltdown. I would leave with the best intentions. I would pack every snack you liked, your tablet, your favorite toys, everything I could think of. I would make sure you took a nap so that you weren’t sleepy but that it was early enough that you wouldn’t be groggy.

No matter what I did, we would end up in a full meltdown, with everyone staring as you screamed, and I cried.

Before long we stopped going out altogether. It was just one more way that I had failed you. Sometimes, well most of the time really, I barley had the energy to get out of bed.

And that was why I NEEDED that bear.

I needed this to be the best Christmas ever because maybe… just maybe. that would fix everything. The thought of my desperation is still powerful enough to bring tears to my eyes.

I have always known that autism shaped my life. From the moment I heard the doctor say those words, nothing was the same. In most ways, it has made our journey much harder. There has been a fight every step of the way and, honestly, sometimes it is exhausting.

But some things changed for the better, too.

There was no room for that lost, insecure, 22-year-old girl in the world of autism.

It took me some time, but I realized that feeling sorry for us was not going to help a damn thing. You needed a fighter. You needed me to be your voice because you didn’t have one.

They say that autism doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with a mom that never gives up.

I don’t work 3 jobs anymore.

We live in a comfy home and you have every toy you could ever want.

We go places (or we did, before COVID) and we don’t give a you-know-what if people stare.

You talk to me. You tell me you love me. You ask me to read you stories.

You and I, kid, we have come so far.

I wish I could go back in time, for just a moment, to talk to that 22-year-old version of me.

I would tell her it wasn’t her fault.

I would tell her that she CAN do this.

She would be proud of us, kiddo.

And that bear was worth every penny of $20, even if it was stolen from someone else’s cart.

If you are reading this and you had a Teddy Bear stolen from your cart in 2016 at a Walmart in Columbia Maryland on Black Friday… I am sorry, but also, thank you so much.

XO,

Maykayla

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