Cheerleading For Parents

Dan Coulter Headshot.jpg
By Dan Coulter

I’ve had a taste of acclaim a number of times in my life.

The first time that stands out was riding on the bus to an “away” basketball game in junior high school. The cheerleaders were doing that “Bill, Bill, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, David can...” thing where they go through the names of everyone on the team. Even though I was on the second string and the girl leading the cheer had to refer to the program at each name to make sure she didn’t miss anyone, it was very heady stuff to hear, “Stan, Stan, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Dan can! Dan, Dan, He’s our man…” Of course, it was only five seconds of fame, followed by the unsettling assurance that if I couldn’t do it, the next guy down the roster could. Still, for those few seconds, I got to hear my name chanted by a busload of cheerleaders and imagine I was the subject of hero worship.

Everyone could use the boost you get from positive reinforcement once in a while. Trouble is, we rarely get it when we most deserve it.

I recall reading an autism-related magazine and being really drawn into an article about parents who were devoting tremendous amounts of time and effort to helping their kids who are on the autism spectrum. I admired these parents. They really deserved to be written up, especially in a magazine that’s read by people who can appreciate their situation.

It made me think about all the other parents of kids on the spectrum who are trying their best, but often get met with criticism or misunderstanding.

Raising a child who’s on the autism spectrum is tough. To be fair, it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been involved to understand just how tough it is. When my son, Drew, was in grade school, he hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. We were working under the diagnoses of “communication handicapped” and “ADHD.” I remember talking with a colleague at my office, describing his difficult behaviors. Her reaction was, “But isn’t that just normal boy stuff?” No echoes of cheerleaders chanting my name in that conversation.

Because most people don’t understand what’s involved, we parents of kids on the spectrum have a smaller universe of people who can appreciate what we do. I was talking with Lori Shery, president of the ASPEN support group, the other day about the things that special needs support groups have to offer. One of the things she mentioned was sharing our kids’ accomplishments at meetings, “Other parents might say, ‘Well, that’s no big deal,’ but it is, it’s a very big deal to us.”

People who don’t appreciate what’s involved aren't likely to give us the positive reinforcement that can help us through the tough times. The more alone you are, the easier it is to doubt yourself or wonder if you’re making the right decisions.

That’s why I think it’s important to be a part of a community of people who understand. While we’re working to educate the world about our kids, it really helps to be in contact with people who already have a clue.

Support groups can be great. We’re members of a number of autism-related support groups, including our local and state autism societies, and the ASPEN organization.

Because we’ve been involved with ASPEN the longest, I’ll say a few words about how it’s helped us. We joined a local ASPEN chapter while we lived in New Jersey and kept our membership when we moved to North Carolina. In New Jersey, my wife, Julie, and I took turns going to the meetings so one of us could stay home with our kids. I remember how reassuring the ASPEN meetings were; especially right after Drew was diagnosed. Professionals came to the meetings to speak and answer questions. Later, parents could trade info and compare notes. Every time we realized we were doing something right, it helped lower our anxiety level.

I also subscribe to a number of online autism-related forums where people share information, concerns and support. Online forums are great because you can access them from wherever you live.

So here’s my pitch.

Let’s all make it a point to legitimately compliment another parent every chance we get on what he or she is doing. I don’t mean just when you happen to see them do something outstanding. Look for something they’re doing that you agree with or admire and let them know. Maybe you’ll tell a support group leader you really appreciate her volunteering to organize and run meetings. Maybe you’ll tell another parent who shared a difficulty that you appreciate how he dealt with the situation. Maybe you’ll hug your spouse and say how much you appreciate his or her patience. But look for opportunities to give that jolt of encouragement and approval.

It costs us nothing, but it can mean the world. And praising others may just spark someone to tell you what a great job you’re doing when you really need to hear it.

If the moment’s really special, you may just capture that junior high school feeling of having a whole squad of cheerleaders chanting your name.

And I bet you deserve it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVDs "Understanding Brothers and Sisters with Asperger Syndrome," "Understanding Brothers and Sisters on the Autism Spectrum," and numerous other educational videos. You can find more information and articles on his website at:

Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter (Revised and Reissued 2014) All Rights Reserved Used By Permission

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