What My Hero Taught Me About Parenting an Autistic Child

For our big trip recently, we went to my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. To say she is our family matriarch is a profound understatement. Four generations of our family piled into her house to both celebrate her and how triumphantly she has lived through everything she has overcome.

She looks about as much like 90 as our cats look like giraffes. I fully expect her to live to be 125. It was only a couple of years ago that we finally talked her out of cleaning her own gutters. She was talking at the party about needing to get out and powerwash her siding.

She lost her first husband to health complications from him being a coal miner when she was only 25. She became a widowed single mom to two kids – my dad who was six at the time and my uncle who was only a few months old. She became a waitress and sometimes walked to work with a pistol in her pocket. The Kentucky coalfields were rough places. She literally walked uphill both ways to work and home again.

She kept a couple of pigs that became meat during the winter and traded molded butter she made for groceries. They lived off that, biscuits, and whatever they could grow or raise. I doubt she ever slept. And still, poor as dirt as they were, if any of the neighbors’ kids were hungry and stopped by, she would feed them without thinking twice about it.

Throughout my family’s struggles growing up, she always fed us and bought us clothes to wear and made sure we got to school. We’d play cards after school and I’d feel completely content with the world. When I was in college, she would give me everything in her house when I came to visit. My car would be packed full of groceries, things she had canned, a hundred rolls of toilet paper, and anything else that she thought I’d need.

But more than anything, I always knew – and still know – that whenever I’m at her house, I am always safe and loved. Whatever we’ve needed, she’s been there for us. I don’t know how she’s afforded half of it. She’s treated everyone like family. She’s done so much for people that the only person who knows even half of what she’s done is her.

Many years ago, she had breast cancer. Watching her go through chemo was painful, though obviously nothing like all she herself had to endure. To watch such a formidable woman struggle that hard made the gravity of her fight clear. She had fought off so many challenges like a black belt karate master that seeing her go near the brink was uncharted for all of us. My heart ached for her. But she won the fight, and won triumphantly – because that’s how she does things.

There is no gift I can give her to adequately express how grateful I am that she is my grandmother, and how happy I am that she lived long enough to see me become a father and try to emulate as a parent as best I can some of the lessons she embodies. These past three years, I have drawn on them a lot as I have tried to understand how best I can be a good parent to our little autistic wonder.

There are so many lessons I could share, but here are at least some. I hope her wisdom means something to you too.

  • Your children deserve everything you can give them. You do whatever it takes to make sure they realize their full potential, even if hell itself should bar the way. Nothing is more important.
  • Make your home a safe, loving, warm place for your children. When they walk through that front door, they need to feel that everything is OK and that everything they need is there.
  • When an obstacle appears between you and what you’re working toward, you take your fists and beat it down. Turning around isn’t an option. Kicking butt is.
  • If God made it, you love it. God don’t make no mistakes.
  • Making mistakes, failing, and generally making a mess of things is fine. Giving up isn’t.
  • If someone you love screws up, the best way to help them through it is to love them that much more.
  • You can’t fix the past. It happened; make your peace with it and move on. Your family needs you in the present, not in the past.
  • Whoever comes through your front door, you welcome them and hand them something to eat. Make it to where if a guest goes hungry, it’s their fault. Food for her is a symbol of welcome, respect, and care.
  • Most problems in your life can be solved by hard work and time. Most of the rest can be solved with harder work and more time.
  • Be direct, constructive, and honest. There’s no need to dance around something when being direct would make the situation much better off. Life’s too precious to waste time talking around stuff.
  • Be generous to the point of extravagance and expect nothing in return. Somehow it seems to work out that you get repaid manyfold. She’s both generous and thrifty and somehow makes it all work out fine.
  • Be someone people feel they can turn to without hesitation and without shame. Be someone who accepts others right where they are.
  • One of the best signs that you’ve lived your life well is that the children surrounding you at your 90th birthday turned out fine.
  • When in doubt, go have a cookie and a cup of coffee and you’ll feel right as rain. Hot biscuits, gravy, and some apple butter work just fine too.

[90 years old my foot.]

Happy Birthday, Mamaw!!


  1. says

    This is an amazing post for an amazing woman. I hope you show this to her! Thank you for sharing this. I plan to print it out and read it often.

  2. D'Julie says

    90 years old! She looks fantastic! My grandmother turns 90 in February and I’ve lost her to old-age dementia. Still, she’s my hero much like your grandmother is yours.

  3. says

    @Beth – I appreciate your kind words. I really wanted to write something to give her on her birthday, but with like 30+ people there and all the stuff going on around here, I decided to hold off until I had some time to really write out what I want to say and could say it in a more personal context. Part of me still wants to write something to get published that she can see while she’s still alive, which may be for forever at the rate she’s going. We tend to be private people about our emotions, but doing this has been on my mind for a long time.

    @D’Julie – She really is something. I have no idea how she is able to do a fraction of what she does. I hope I’m doing that well at 50, let alone 90.

    It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would be like to be in your shoes. I try to think about what I would feel like if my grandmother slipped into dementia like that. It honestly hurts me too much to think about it. She’s told me time and time again that she prays that she won’t go out that way. I can tell the thought of that possibility and feeling helpless about it is terrifying to her. I can’t even imagine.

    But here’s to heroes! May we always find ways to celebrate them by carrying on their spirit in the way we live our own lives.

  4. Kathy Cook says

    What a fantastic lady, your family is so lucky to have her. My husbands grandmother was the same way – she would be up on her roof in her heels cleaning the gutters in her 80’s! One time the ladder fell and she was up there for hours before her granddaughter came home and found her! And instead of being panic stricken she asked how her date went before she asked for the ladder to get down!! Women like that and your grandmother are few and far between, this was an awesome tribute to her! Thanks for sharing – Kathy

  5. says

    Kathy – She definitely is amazing. Gotta love kick-butt grandmothers!

    She’s had a rough go of it lately health-wise, but she’s tough and determined and handling it with optimism – all things I try to emulate in my own life. I just wish I could do it half as well as she can!

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