I don’t think of myself as a glass-half-empty kind of person, but I have to admit that when my mind is free to wander, it is usually occupied with what is wrong. As the parent of a son with autism, I find I have lots of material. These days, I am trying to have “conversations” with my son to work on social skills. This takes a huge amount of effort and the stubborn silences remind me of a blind date that has gone horribly awry.
The difficulty in having these conversations is just my latest obsession. At every stage of my son’s life, my focus has been mostly on what is missing, what I can “fix.”
It turns out that we are all hardwired to notice what is wrong. This was quite useful for our earliest ancestors, when they had to react quickly to a possible attack from a saber tooth tiger. Fortunately, we usually don’t have those kinds of dangers to contend with. But the habit of focusing on what is missing continues. And over time, this tendency to think mostly about what is wrong leads to overwhelm and even burnout.
The practice of gratitude, as it turns out, is a great corrective to this hardwired habit.
A gratitude practice, it turns out, is more than superficially paying lip service to things you are thankful for. It involves seeing the good things in your life as if for the first time. When I really focus on what it’s like to drink that first cup of coffee in the morning, for example, I can really feel the sense of gratitude in my body, and I am in a better place to start my day.
This brings me to the subject of my dog.
The other day, after another less-than-successful attempt at a conversation with Noah, I felt defeated and sank down on the couch. Suddenly my dog Dizzy jumped up to join me. It’s like she understood that I needed some one-on-one time with her to recover.
We waited years to get a dog, much to the frustration of my animal-loving older daughter. Noah’s diagnosis with autism at the age of two made life seem chaotic enough and I thought that a dog was the last thing we needed. I gave my daughter all kinds of excuses—-Wait until we have a fence—-Wait until we fix up our house—Wait until you’re in high school. Finally, when Noah was 13, we took the plunge. That is when Dizzy came into our lives. She is a 40-pound mixture of seemingly every breed except poodle. She won our hearts the first time we saw her.
Even though Dizzy isn’t a therapy dog, she has been a surprisingly positive influence in Noah’s life. Dizzy gives my son a sense of responsibility and mastery. Almost every day Noah takes Dizzy for a walk, usually with his Dad or me accompanying him. Those walks have become part of our routine, something that gives us a shared activity with Noah. Dizzy has proven herself to be a great watchdog, and allows me to feel comfortable leaving Noah home by himself for set periods of time. And Dizzy is the one creature in son’s life who my son can boss around. I love hearing Noah’s commanding voice when he calls her: “Dizzy. Come!” And, for the most part, Dizzy listens to him.
Apart from Noah, Dizzy has made my life immeasurably better.Walking her gets me outside and out of my head. And she is the one creature in my life who loves me with absolutely no judgments. Whether I have been away from her for just a few minutes or a few hours, she is always insanely happy to see me. She is a constant in all the daily ups and downs of my life.
I recently came across journal article attesting to the power of dogs to improve the wellbeing of families with autism. If you care to, you can read about it here.
Dogs aren’t for everyone and I don’t want to sugarcoat the decision to have a dog. Truth be told, there were brief moments when I wondered whether we had made a mistake in getting Dizzy. In her early days, she was tough to control on a leash and would practically pull your arm off in pursuit of a squirrel. She also used to be a stealth chewer of down comforters and articles of clothing.
But in the end, the good has far outweighs the bad. And Dizzy is absolutely one of the good things in my life.
The good thing in your life doesn’t need to be a dog. It could be a movie that makes you laugh until you cry, or a great piece of chocolate cake. The important thing is to notice, to take in the delight of the moment. Even with all the challenges and frustrations a day might bring, there is always a good thing and it is usually right under your nose. Allow it to penetrate your awareness. If you do this, the gratitude you grow will provide some much-needed lightness in this parenting journey.