Ep. 15 – Normal for Me: Embracing Life as a Parent of Autistic Children

Tamara Anderson’s life is anything but normal, yet she’s embraced it anyway. Hear what life is like for her parenting two autistic sons.

Outline

  • Normal for Me is a self-help parenting book by Tamara K. Anderson, published in 2019
  • Overview of the book
    • Two of Tamara’s four children have autism, one high-functioning and one low-functioning
    • This is a great book for parents of autistic children and also those who want a glimpse into a family with autistic children
  • What is Normal?
    • After a horribly difficult day with her children, Tamara was asking God, “Why is life so hard? Why can’t we be a normal family?” In reply, God whispered to her, “Tamara, this IS normal for you.”
    • That brought her great comfort, though her journey to acceptance was long and difficult
  • The Power of Journaling
    • Tamara shared a journal entry about “the day from hell,” writing in a way that was raw and uncensored
    • When we write like that, it can help us work through our feelings, and it will help those who read it in the future to not feel so alone in their trials
    • I share an inspiring story from an ancestor who struggled with intense trials in Utah after leaving her comfortable life in England: “One of her daughters remembered her mother standing with her head on her arms resting on the mantel piece with tears dripping like rain on the hearth beneath, but in spite of this she was a brave and courageous woman.”
  • Judge Not!
    • Tamara and her husband have had to deal with judgment from others
    • “There really is no way we can know the heart, the intentions, or the circumstances of someone who might say or do something we find reason to criticize. Thus, judge not.” (Thomas S. Monson)
  • Trials: More than We Can Handle?
    • “I think the phrase needs to be changed to say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle with His help.’ Basically, He doesn’t give us more than HE can handle. The question is, do we turn to Him for help in our trials?”
  • Ask God for Parenting Help
    • Tamara shares a story of God helping her find a way to involve all of her kids in a family activity
    • Our children were God’s children long before they were ours, and if anyone knows how to get through to them, it’s Him
  • Take Care of Yourself
    • Tamara shares a fantastic list of stress-relieving activities that she could do in increments of 5, 10, and 15 minutes
  • Takeaways
    • 1. The next time you have a horrible day, write about it. Be honest and open and raw and uncensored.
    • 2. Create a list of stress-relieving activities that you can do in 5, 10, and 20 minutes.

Transcript

Have you ever had your expectations shattered and thought, “Why is my life like this?” Well, join me today to hear the experience of Tamara K. Anderson, a mother of two autistic sons. She has had to grapple with the question, “Why can’t I have a normal family?”, and her journey through her trials is inspiring.

I’m Liz Kazandzhy, and you’re listening to the cozy little podcast “Latter-day Saint Book Nook,” where we talk about books from a gospel perspective. Whether fiction or nonfiction, religious or not, great books are like wells of wisdom just waiting to be drawn from, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. So if you love books, and you love the gospel of Jesus Christ, you’re in the right place. Come and learn from the best books to help you live your best life!

Hey everyone! I’m glad to be back here with you. In case you didn’t know, I love doing this podcast. I’ve always loved reading, but now I get even more out of it because now I can tell you about some of the awesome books I read. And, of course, I hope you enjoy this as well!

Overview of Normal for Me

So today’s book is by Tamara K. Anderson, and it’s called Normal for Me. It’s all about the author’s experience parenting two children with autism. So, she has four kids—three boys and a girl—and her middle two kids are autistic. Jacob, the younger one, has high-functioning autism, whereas Nathan, the older, has low-functioning autism, meaning the disability is more intense you could say. And Tamara shares her story from the very beginning—leading up to the diagnosis and further on as she learned to cope with this new way of life and come to terms with her situation.

Now, before I go on, I just want to say that I would definitely recommend this book to any parent with an autistic child. I think you will find it to be incredibly insightful, and you’ll also probably feel like it’s a breath of fresh air knowing that you are totally not alone in what you and your kids struggle with.

And also, even for those who don’t have children with autism (like me), it’s still an insightful book because it gives a very good glimpse into a family with autistic children. I mean, there were parts that were so eye-opening to me, because I’ve had almost no experience with autistic children. And so to read this book and see life through the author’s perspective was kind of mind-boggling. And that’s really the beauty of reading—it can kind of take you away from your own life and transport you into someone else’s, which ultimately helps you have more understanding and compassion for others.

I also wanted to mention that Tamara is a Latter-day Saint, but this book (and also her podcast “Stories of Hope in Hard Times”)—are geared toward a mainstream Christian audience. So it doesn’t have any Latter-day Saint jargon or anything like that, but it does have a lot about God and faith and general Christian principles.

What is Normal?

Alright, so let me get into the book now. The title, Normal for Me, comes from a story she shared about going for a family walk. It was a beautiful spring evening, and Tamara noticed couples and families walking around the neighborhood, enjoying the weather and their time together. And she and her husband decided, “Let’s take a walk.” At this point, her oldest (Jordan) was 7 years old and the only one of the four kids who could communicate verbally. Nathan and Jacob, the ones with autism, were 6 and 2, and the youngest, Noelle, was still a baby. And, as she put it, “Getting the kids ready to go anywhere was a bit like herding grasshoppers.”

So now I’ll describe the experience in Tamara’s words:

Thirty minutes AFTER deciding to take a walk, we exited the front door to breathe in the beautiful spring evening.

Our calm, successful excursion lasted less than five minutes. Halfway down the street, Nathan began a huge tantrum. He did the “leg drop” kids do when you’re holding their hand, forcing you to either drag them or carry them. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he brought chaos to the quiet evening. No words . . . just crying. He didn’t want to go on a walk and nothing we could do or say could convince him otherwise. We even tried bribery, but it is hard when your words aren’t understood.

My husband scooped Nathan up and took him home, and I dutifully finished the walk with the other three children. As the sun commenced its descent, my heart sank with it. By the time I returned home, I felt overwhelmed and flooded with despair.

Once I had the children settled for the night, I fell on my knees, my heart aching. Questions spilled from my anguished, weeping soul: Why do we have two children with autism? Wasn’t one enough? Why is life so hard? Why can’t we just go on walks like a normal family? Why can’t we be a “normal” family?

Somewhere amidst all my blubbering came a firm yet kind answer. God simply whispered, “Tamara, this IS normal for you.”

This simple truth surprised me as it resounded over and over within me.

The more I thought about it, I realized I had never known “normal” as other families experience it. I have two “typically-developing” children, and two little boys blessed, and challenged, with autism. That is my normal—what God gave me to love and cherish.

Once I saw myself in that light, asking all those “Why” questions became ludicrous. I had fallen into the unhappy trap of comparing my family, my children, and my life to others. I needed to free myself from those comparisons and embrace the gifts with which I’d been blessed.

God pushed back my fog of despair and doubt and lifted me to a higher level of understanding. No, my life wasn’t what we would call “normal.” But, then again, whose life is “normal?”

I really liked that. I think that when we’re upset about something, part of that frustration comes from the situation itself, but part of it often comes from things not living up to your expectations. There’s a certain way you expect your life to go, or how you expect your marriage to be or your children or your job or whatever it is, and when those expectations aren’t met, it’s hard. But instead of comparing our situation to others’, or to our “ideal” situation, we should try to accept it, learn from it, and keep trudging forward.

This, of course, is not easy, which is what Tamara talks about next. After her son Nathan received the diagnosis of autism, she struggled. She went through the whole grief cycle—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. And one of my favorite things about this book is how raw it is—how vulnerable the author is in sharing not just the positive parts of her journey but also so much about her struggles.

The Power of Journaling

So, I want to share some snippets of one of her journal entries about a day she called “the day from hell.” Strangely enough, this was actually one of my favorite parts of the book because it taught me a powerful lesson about journaling, which I want to talk about a little later.

So, here it is. (And by the way, I apologize if this is a little graphic, but I think any parent has had to deal with something similar at some point.)

I had Jacob in for his physical today. Our doctor confirmed he has autistic tendencies and I felt like crying. I know he does, but I really don’t want to do this again. I don’t want to lose another sweet boy to autism. It is too hard and too painful.

Autism is such a cruel disease! The baby is born and you look at it and it is so perfect. The baby develops normally and then little by little that baby is taken away . . . and you deny it is happening, but something is wrong. And all of a sudden, the baby that loved you will not look at you or talk to you and they start doing weird things. And you want to just weep.

Oh, how unfair life is for them, too. They get a faint glimmer of normalcy before this crippling power overtakes their mind. I hate autism. I hate it. It is destroying my children. Why does this have to happen to our family?

Tonight, I got mad and frustrated. Nathan played in his poop and wiped it all over himself two times today. Then after I had put them down for the night, Jordan yelled through their bedroom that Nathan had pooped on the floor.

When I walked in, Nathan was smearing his poop into the carpet with his foot. It was the worst I had ever seen. I just started crying and crying. I was angry. I kept saying, “Why do you do this?”

Justin, [that’s her husband], has been sick today and he came upstairs and brought me the cleaning stuff—rags and a spray. The problem was it was so smeared into the carpet it wouldn’t come out with a rag. I was totally overwhelmed and just kept crying.

I was angry because I didn’t want to clean up the poop. The task seemed so daunting. Why would anyone play in their own poop? I was angry because I can’t have a normal family. I was angry because other people have all normal kids. Sometimes, I feel like God is punishing me because I am not good enough or patient enough. Maybe God knew I wouldn’t be a good enough mother and so he gave me kids I couldn’t mess up.

There are times I really love being a mother and there are times I really hate being a mother. At this moment I did not like Nathan at all—I have never felt so angry with him. He has been such a pill this summer. I try to help him and he yells at me. I try to get him dressed and he screams and kicks me.

Tonight after I put him in the shower and rinsed him off, I went to get him and he had once again smeared poop all over himself. I was so angry. I yelled, “What is wrong with you?” This is not normal behavior. I mean, I know he isn’t normal, but that is not normal for an autistic kid, is it? I guess the question is more what is wrong with me? Why do I have these feelings of anger? It isn’t normal. This isn’t me.

I got a counselor’s name from our family doctor today. Justin and I have been talking about going to one.

I am sorry, but I had to vent tonight. I have had a headache all day, and now I feel like crap. I have apologized to everyone. I feel totally numb inside right now. As I have written this journal entry tonight I have cried again—but now I am just exhausted and numb.

So like I said, this was one of the most powerful parts of the book that will stay with me for a long time. And it’s not because of the story itself—it’s because she wrote it down.

She wrote all of that in her journal, unlike me who, when I have a bad day, the last thing I want to do is journal about it. I think sometimes I’m too ashamed to write, or maybe I’d rather just try to forget it rather than relive it later if it’s written down. But whatever the reason, I am not very good at journaling about hard times. My entry would have probably said, “Absolutely horrible day that I never want to think about again. Goodbye.”

But you know what? I’m going to change, and in fact, I have started to change thanks to this book. I’ve started being more honest and real in my journal entries, and it has made a world of difference. It helps me actually work through my feelings instead of just trying to bury them.

And you know, there’s a part of me that worries what people will think (like my posterity) when they eventually read journal entries like that. But then I remember one story I came across about one of my ancestors—my 4th great-grandmother—that really touched me. She had enjoyed a peaceful, successful life in England for many years (she was even a cook for the Queen at one point), but when she and her family joined the Church, they left for Zion like many others. And this is a passage describing the time when they got to Utah:

The winter was severe and the next summer Indian trouble broke out and they were forced to go to Manti. The grasshoppers came one year and destroyed the crops. The family often went without supper then got up in the morning and went to work without a taste of food.

Could anyone blame Ann Longman for saying she missed her life in England where she had plenty to eat and all the comforts of life? One of her daughters remembered her mother standing with her head on her arms resting on the mantel piece with tears dripping like rain on the hearth beneath, but in spite of this she was a brave and courageous woman.”

That image is more powerful to me than a thousand inspiring stories of faith-filled Saints crossing the plains and overcoming every obstacle they faced. Because it’s just so real. Life is hard sometimes. Sometimes you doubt, sometimes you question, and sometimes you cry. But you can still be considered courageous just for pressing on. And that was something I really needed to hear when I read that entry.

So, as for my own journal entries, I don’t think I’ll mind if one of my future grandchildren find an entry I wrote about how ridiculously hard it is to be a parent sometimes, because maybe it will help them feel understood, like they’re not alone in this crazy journey we call life.

And just to relate this back to the gospel like I always try to do, here’s what President Spencer W. Kimball said about journaling:

Get a notebook, … a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels may quote from it for eternity. Begin today and write in it your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies.

What could you do better for your children and [posterity] than to record the story of your life, your triumphs over adversity, your recovery after a fall, your progress when all seemed black, your rejoicing when you had finally achieved? Some of what you write may be humdrum dates and places, but there will also be rich passages that will be quoted by your posterity.

I liked that because it includes the good and the bad. Don’t just write about the triumph—write about the adversity. Write about when all seems black, and that way, your progress will shine even brighter. And you know, maybe the angels won’t be quoting from the parts where you vent your frustrations about your days from hell, but trust me—your posterity will be glad to know they’re not alone.

Wow, sorry I went off on that for so long, but it was just a really powerful lesson I got from this book. So let’s go ahead and take a break, and then I’ll mention a few other things I learned from this.

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Alright, so for this second half, I want to share several quotes from this book, Normal for Me, and share what I learned from them.

Judge Not!

So first off, let’s talk about judging others. Being a parent, I’ve become better about not judging other parents—because I hate the feeling that I’m being judged when people don’t know my circumstances. But this book really drove that point home for me. For example, here’s a quote from the author’s husband Justin about their son Nathan:

I used to feel so terrible when he exploded, and then some person would turn around a look at me like I’m a bad dad, and it made it worse. It becomes a cycle of self-doubt, frustration, anger, and pity. Learning to separate myself from the situation was the first step to healing, but it takes time.

I can’t number the times that people somewhere in public give us the look that says, “Do you have any clue how to be a parent?” or “Will you tell your 6 foot 2-inch man-sized son to stop yelling?” This still happens regularly, but now that we know this is “normal for us,” we can usually shrug off the glares and do our best in those circumstances.

Also, their other autistic son, Jacob, was what they called an “escape artist,” even climbing over a 6-foot fence when he was only 3 years old. Just listen to this:

I did everything in my power to keep him safe. I prayed to God daily that we could keep up with Jacob, and that He would give me the wisdom to know how to do this. When Jacob used the horizontal wooden posts on the fence to help him climb, we ensured that only vertical slats faced our yard. He then used the little red and yellow car to boost him over the fence. So, that disappeared. Then he would stack our sand toys on top of each other to boost him over the fence. So those disappeared as well. Sigh! Then he would stick his fingers in the little vertical gaps between boards to Spider-man crawl his way to the top of the fence.

Come on! Seriously! How do I keep this kid safe when he is determined to run? “Dear God, help me keep Jacob safe today” continued to be my daily plea for help.

The reason I wanted to share that was because, let’s be honest, if you saw a little kid constantly wandering your neighborhood, having gotten away from his house over and over again, what would you think? I for one would think, “Man, where are this boy’s parents and what on earth are they doing? Why can’t they just keep an eye on him?” But I would be so wrong, because that boy’s parents were doing everything they could to keep an eye on him, but he was just wired in a way to escape.

We would be wise to remember the words of President Thomas S. Monson, who said, “There really is no way we can know the heart, the intentions, or the circumstances of someone who might say or do something we find reason to criticize. Thus, judge not.” Also, every thought you spend judging others is a missed opportunity to think about how you might help them instead. In the case with Jacob the escape artist, if I were a neighbor, my time would be much better spent getting to know the Andersons and asking how I might be able to help with their sons.

Trials: More than We Can Handle?

Alright, so second, I want to talk a bit about trials in general. Tamara said that a lot of people tried to comfort her with the phrase, “Just remember, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” But the more she thought about that, the more she realized she actually couldn’t handle the trials she was given, and she came to this conclusion:

I think the phrase needs to be changed to say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle with His help.” Basically, He doesn’t give us more than HE can handle. The question is, do we turn to Him for help in our trials?

I thought that was a really good reminder. And later she testified of the truth of this:

God helped me endure and survive with two young children on the autism spectrum. I learned through experience this profound truth: two people can do anything if one of them is God.

I used to think God only worked doing big miracles—like the parting of the Red Sea. But I have come to see that it is the little daily mercies that add up to big miracles—like surviving as a zombified mommy for years, or keeping Jacob alive after he ran toward danger. I learned that a daily dose of prayer and a few moments of pondering God’s word gave me the strength to make it through.

I am so grateful for God’s daily grace which strengthened me beyond my normal capacity, gave me wisdom beyond my own, and blessed me with angels as I struggled through my wilderness. I learned firsthand that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle with His help!

Ask God for Parenting Help

Third, kind of going along with what I just talked about, I learned how important it is to ask for God’s help with parenting specifically. For example, the author shared this story:

One day a few years ago, as I prepared a short lesson for our family night, I puzzled how to help my sons with autism participate. So I used one tool that has always worked for me: prayer. I told God I wanted to involve my ENTIRE family, but I didn’t know how to do it. I figured my children were God’s children before they were ever mine, and I asked Him to teach me what to do.

No sooner had I presented my request than thoughts and ideas came to my mind. One of the first ideas I had was to make a poster of the songs we sang so the kids could follow along. I sat down and wrote the song out. I drew little pictures as well so the kids (even those who couldn’t read yet) could learn the songs. Now, Nathan won’t usually sing while we sing, but I discovered he would shine a flashlight on each word while we sang. That was his way of participating.

So, from that example, you can clearly see the combination of faith and works. She was at a loss about how to do something, so she exercised her faith by asking God in prayer what to do. And then, when she acted on the revelation she received, she was blessed for it. And that is a pattern that will work for any parent who doesn’t know how to handle a situation with one of their children. As Tamara said, our children were God’s children long before they were ours, and if anyone knows how to get through to them, it’s Him.

Take Care of Yourself

Lastly, I really liked Tamara’s tips about stress relief. When going through any hard thing, you’ve got to find healthy ways to manage your stress. And what I loved about her advice is that she actually wrote out a list and broke it down based on how much time she had to relax. This is what she said:

I find it helpful to make a list of healthy stress-relieving activities and how long it will take to do them. This is an example of a list I keep on my phone:

If I have 5 minutes I can:

  • walk up and down the stairs a couple of times
  • go outside to breathe some fresh air
  • listen to my favorite song and sing along
  • pray
  • read my favorite comic strip

If I have 10 minutes, I know I can:

  • do a short exercise routine
  • read a distracting book
  • journal
  • play a game

And if I have 20 minutes, I can:

  • nap
  • clean an area of my home while dancing to music
  • take my dog for a walk
  • call a friend to catch up and laugh

I thought that was just brilliant! Because life is so busy that sometimes we don’t feel like we even have time to relax. But by breaking it down like that, you can actually fit those stress-relieving activities into the little cracks of your day, which will help your day run so much more smoothly.

Takeaways

Well, those are the main things I wanted to share from this book. I hope you enjoyed those insights as well, and like I mentioned, this is an awesome book for parents with autistic children and also those who’d like to learn more about autism. And, since the author relates her experiences to trials in general, it’s applicable to pretty much any mortal.

As for the takeaway invitations for this episode, I’ve got two of them.

First, the next time you have a horrible day, try to write about it. Be honest and open and raw and uncensored—just let your thoughts and feelings flow. Feel free to also look for the tender mercies of the Lord and learn from your experiences, but the point of this invitation is to just get you to be more honest about the hard parts of your life. That way, later it will be even more powerful when you overcome those hard things.

And my second invitation is for you to create your own list of stress-relieving activities that you can do in 5, 10, and 20 minutes. Then keep it somewhere accessible, like a note on your phone or a paper in your pocket.

Well, that’s all for today! If you enjoyed the episode, please leave a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Those reviews help a lot in encouraging others to listen, especially since this is a fairly new podcast. Come back next time to hear a spiritual thought from my book, The Holy Ghost from A to Z. And in the meantime, have a great week!

Thanks for listening to Latter-day Saint Book Nook, hosted by Liz Kazandzhy! If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. You can also visit ldsbooknook.com to stay up to date with me and the podcast. Thanks again, and I’ll talk to you next time!


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