Portia Dawson is a mother, writer, and autism awareness advocate. On her blog, she reflects on raising her son with autism, Callie. Learn about Portia's journey in embracing the joys, blessings, and triumphs of autism.
Tell us about yourself.
It’s hard for me to paint a picture of myself through words. I'm a wife, a Mom of four amazing sons, a writer, and an advocate. Much like many, my role is not glitz. I just walk, and my walk tells a story. A big chunk of that story centers around autism. My second born was diagnosed when he was three, and from there a journey began of confusion, uncertainties, quite a bit of falls, get-back-ups and learning — striving with tenacity and holding onto nuggets of hope. I do have a heart for families with loved ones affected by autism or any special needs, and my mission is to spread awareness by educating, promoting acceptance and respect, and conveying as diligently as I can to families that hope does exist and they’re definitely not running solo. Our walks may differ, but the road we travel is similar, and I get it. I understand, and if I can, I’m here to help.
On your personal blog, you once wrote, "A gray cloud brought a hush over our house after the autism diagnosis was not only placed in our hands for viewing, but to remain." What was the journey of your son's autism diagnosis?
Unlike my oldest son, Callie hardly cried, which was both shocking and a blessing. My ears had become accustomed to hearing piercing wailing. But that silence, although a relief, left me feeling uncomfortable. It was like the quietness did not fit. He stared a lot too. He took in his surroundings as if the world he was captivated by was somehow not the same as ours. We could look at the same tree or toy or cartoon, but he was fixated and gathered something seemingly more meaningful out of it than I could grasp. Strange, yes — but, it didn’t stand out enough for me to call for help.
However, the check off list for milestones at 6 months, 12 months, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years...screamed DELAY and that changed the atmosphere for sure. Having an older son made me painfully aware of the developmental steps that Callie had not reached. My heart sank to deeper levels as the steps to achievement increasingly became a snail pace with each passing day. Communication through words hadn’t surfaced, and communication through alternatives resembled an amateur climbing Mt. Everest. Potty training was a nightmare. Fine motor skills — using a pair of scissors, holding a pencil, picking up small objects — were concepts difficult to comprehend and follow; hurdles that were a struggle to jump over. Gross motor skills: riding a bicycle, balancing, and running were falls waiting to happen — successes far in between. And although the cries were scarce as an infant, suddenly in his toddler years, they appeared in the form of meltdowns. I realized that my son’s demeanor and behavior weren’t something I had ever witnessed before. This was new and troubling. Our pediatrician recommended we see a developmental pediatrician…and after a few months on the waiting list, autism was formally introduced. Tears flooded as disbelief, fear & confusion laid heavily upon our hearts. We left her office wrapped in never's, wont's, cant's and not much hope for the future…quite a different story now, than the one given prior.
How did the diagnosis affect your personal and/or professional life, particularly your marriage and family relationships?
I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a concentration in business writing. Human Resources is where I camped out, studying as much as I could to learn about this field of interest. I worked in HR for a few years before I married and even a year after. However, once my son’s diagnosis entered the room, this was not an option...and that was ok. My son’s needs came first, as it does now. I will say that I miss working, meeting, and interacting with new people. But when you're traveling a road where tomorrow may be unknown yet the possibilities are great, where each day is an adventure and your tour guide is the most amazing treasure named Callie, you don’t complain. You’re blessed to be on the ride, in spite of the sun, the rain, and moments of a hurricane. You’re just grateful.
Has this journey knocked me off my feet? Absolutely! Melancholy, strained, stretched, fatigued, and pretty much swept undersea? Certainly! Has my marriage felt the density of trying to stay anchored in a place that still feels unreal? A place where the present is never the same and the years ahead are unclear and therefore terrifying — causing, at times, different emotions on both parts, praying just to get through the day? For sure! As for my 1st, 3rd and 4th born — have they been angered, baffled, and overwhelmed with the sense of being foresaken while at the same time desperately craving the identical thing that is drawing Mom and Dad to the sibling they can’t quite figure out? Yes, yes, and yes! This journey has been a wear and tear, but we’ve navigated with love, prayer, and tenacity. We don’t give up with the first signs of hardship. We don’t give up at all. Instead, we embrace the story we walk with patience & understanding...and literally deal with things as they happen and try not to worry about things we cannot change or control.
Who or what have been your biggest support systems or resources while raising a child on the spectrum?
Callie was diagnosed 13 years ago. The social media outlet now was certainly not the network of enlightenment or go-to back then. The resources available today were nowhere to be found when he was three. The library and my closet is where I buried myself in reading, trying to absorb as much knowledge through books as I could. Autism was foreign to me. I had no one to confide in or glean from, so trial & error, lessons learned, and experience became the confidantes that I trusted, the instructor I pursued and relied on, and the shoulders I stood upon to see growth beyond the clouds of delay. As Callie got into his double digit years, the Internet, especially social media, became such an informative tool, as well as a means to connecting to a village that could identify with the day to day narrative you lived. I met wonderful families there and in-person, where an environment was strong bonded without the fear or worry of judgement or misunderstandings. You felt safe, but this took a long while.
In the beginning, it was just me and my husband, holding each other and holding Callie and holding our other sons, trying to wrap our brains around something that did not exist in the world we knew. All we had was each other. Our extended family was great. They were just clueless, but very much supportive. My Mom and Dad were the absolute best. They were in the trenches with us and still are today. My Mom, a warrior in her own right, took the diagnosis and did not give it a second thought. She constantly surrounded my hearing with faith, believing our son could progress and would progress. It didn’t matter that I often brought her plates full of tears, doubt, anxieties, and reality checks. Her mountain of confidence in God and in Callie would not be moved…and it helped tremendously. The wind beneath my wings has been my husband, with provision and comprehending that our son is more despite the word of mouth, non-acceptance and disrespect of others. And my parents, who have undergirded our family, always with prayer and their hands finding whatever needs to be done and doing it, with no complaint and with all heart. I didn’t have a lot of support initially, but this walk of life has taught me to be grateful and to know that no matter what, we’re blessed.
Between your personal blog and non-profit, The Journey Thru Autism, you have created incredible platforms for autism advocacy and self-expression. What eye-opening moments have you had while leading autism awareness and what more needs to be done?
Observing a child’s routine is one thing, but if you truly hearken to their steps, their frame of mind, their abilities, as well as their forward movement and even their moments of regression, I’m convinced that you’ll gain insight & understanding of who they are. And your perspective on the journey will be well-rounded instead of one-dimensional.
I feel there’s lots of eye-opening moments on the road we travel. There’s something to discover daily. I’ve just learned to be really attentive to my son’s actions (no matter what they are) and be willing to see beyond where he is presently, where files have suggested he is, and will be and where doubters have only seen the diagnosis & the impossibilities that they have attached to his story.
But if I had to narrow down a couple of moments that took my breath away, it would be my son’s progress and becoming acquainted with travelers who have a similar walk as our family. We were told he wouldn’t develop as other children. His understanding of materials and skills would forever challenge his growth. His behavior would be an uphill battle to control and his communication, in the traditional sense (of speaking) would not be clear. We were told A LOT of things Callie would not be able to accomplish throughout the early years, and to see him now is not only remarkable but a miracle. That isn’t to say that his maturity or the evolution of who he is has come to its destination just because he has triumph over some obstacles. The mountain top is yet in front of us. There’s still a climb.
Secondly, I have met amazing villagers, who understand the walk we take and do not judge. It has been enlightening, because initially we felt alone and isolated. I think that is one of the things that needs more attention. Parents need to know that there are hands out there to help and shoulders available for a cry. There also needs to be more awareness, more acceptance, more understanding, more respect, and more hope. The journey is not a walk in the park and families need to feel and want to feel that society has their back.
What advice do you have for other parents with a child on the spectrum?
I’m careful to give advice, because every child is different. In the autism community, there’s a saying — “When you meet one person with autism, you meet one person with autism.” There may be some similarities in some way, but personalities, behaviors, interests, likes, dislikes, emotions, how each one copes, how each one learns — each one is different. But when I do give advice or speak of my journey with my son, I like to highlight the fact that our day to day may not tailor to someone else’s needs. This is a story that’s still being written, and although there have been many pushes down the hill, as well as step-by-step victories, we’re a work in progress. I will say, the journey can be difficult….quite the rollercoaster ride.
On one hand, it can be predictable. Callie has a routine, however, change can result in an avalanche, disrupting the predictability that you’ve become used to. So, without knowing what the weather of the day or night will be, we’ve just learned to take the day as it comes. We handle what may come our way the best we can. Obviously, we are not perfect. Not sure anyone is, but our motto is to always try and do our best. Another nugget learned from our journey would be to celebrate all moments, big or what others would consider small. Each one is huge for your child. Be your child’s biggest advocate. Fight for their rights. They need to know that you’re always in their corner. And finally, no matter how glum the journey can be, forever take your child in one hand and hope in the other, and keep walking forward. I read a quote that said, “Pain is real, but so is hope.” I believe hope can do wonders — if you allow it to direct your path.