Susanna O'Brien, Parent Ambassador for Anderson Center for Autism, shares what "Let Freedom Ring" means to her.
My concept of freedom has clearly changed over the years. I started out like any child does, wanting freedom at some point from being told what to do. I understood at some level that I had the freedom of living in America; my parents made this very clear to us at an early age. During the sixties there were assassinations: John and Robert Kennedy, as well as Martin Luther King. The Vietnam war broke out and there was starvation in Biafra. We were brought up to be grateful for everything we had. “Eat your dinner - children are starving in Biafra.” Going to school, meeting new people, gaining new perspectives, changes in my family structure, going off to college, working, dating, marriage, parenting, aging, retiring - each new chapter has changed my view, my perception. I think we can all agree as human beings that freedom means having choices. Whether we have choices or reject the choices we are given - it is a fluid concept. Freedom without direction, however, isn’t an optimal state of being. I realize that now by looking back on my journey.
The funny thing about freedom is you get to the point where, in my case, the college years are over, and the career begins, and you think to yourself…...freedom at last. To a certain extent I really did feel that way about teaching at first. I knew my subject and I wanted to have kids really love biology. So the kid part of teaching is great, and for a good 15 years I really felt that I could be creative, and put my own spin on education. I am not sure when the big shift came, maybe it was the internet and the ability to electronically keep tabs on workers, but the pendulum swung back to a more rigid paradigm. If everyone (teachers within a subject area) wasn’t all doing the same thing, then the students would “miss out.” To some extent this may be true, but I did not go into teaching to be a formatted robot. My intellectual freedom was a challenge. I managed to do what I thought was best even under these circumstances, but at times I felt “punished” and not a “team player”, because of the lack of want other educators had to stretch themselves. So, I did what any caring teacher does: close the door to my classroom and teach the way I wanted. This is how I managed to keep my sense of freedom as an educator. On that note, I was raised by two educators that - if I dared complain about a teacher, which I’d seldom do - would school me on the facts of life. They would tell me that life is filled with all sorts of people. Some you will like and admire, and some not. They were right. The experiences I had with great teachers and not-so-great teachers enabled me to deal with certain personalities I would come across - during my teaching career and life in general. They would say, “What makes you think you are going to like everyone in your life?” There is a sense of freedom just in knowing that.
Getting married and having children yanks at that freedom and pulls you down underwater sometimes, while you scream to yourself, “I don’t want to compromise, no I don’t!” And I won’t. What are the choices then? Leave, a very complicated ordeal. Or go to therapy, which I did, for over 20 years. Make no mistake about it, therapy can be the most freeing string of conversations a person can have. Think about it. You are paying someone to listen to your drama, your pain, your innermost thoughts, thoughts that you have locked up because way back when you decided to be “the good girl.”
Having the boys clearly put my freedom on hold. All children do, but raising special needs children is a whole other ballgame. There is a mourning period - death of a normal life - whatever that means, but with one, then two, the mourning period shortened as we tried to figure out what to do.
Autism. After 25 years in, the struggles, the joy in small gains made, have transformed me as a mother, not to mention made me a more inclusive educator. Our Matty, a 20-year-old young man with autism, will be entering his last year at Anderson Center for Autism, where he has spent almost four years in the freedom of a safe and secure environment that has allowed his independence to soar. Next year Anderson will ready him for the transition into an adult placement, a forever home, there he will continue on his journey towards freedom. It is freedom with direction, the best kind. For this I am eternally grateful.
An old friend sent me an email about a month ago, all excited about a homeopath that might ”cure” or reverse autism. Both of my boys have been seen by a homeopath early on in their development, as I looked for alternative means by which to “save” them from autism. I looked at that the email with a new sense of freedom. The new sense of freedom was to let my children, who are now young men, be who they are, and to stop chasing unicorns. Of course I checked out the site, which made all sorts of promises, and began what would be a very short, “online” chat with a “specialist.” As I probed the specialist with questions about the treatments, the return comment seemed to be the same….. You need to see this man for your son. Again, wow. What a revelation. I simply hit “delete.”
Finding the courage to let go of expectations when it comes to my sons is still a struggle; we all want the best for our children. When I am able to do so, I thank them out loud. It has taken me a lifetime to come to this place, but I am grateful. The serenity prayer says it all.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. [Niebuhr]
Let freedom ring.