Autism awareness: How one mom became an advocate

Anchel Krishna talks with mom Brianne Buckman-Kalechstein about becoming an advocate for autism acceptance after her son was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

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Brianne Buckman-Kalechstein with her husband and two sons.

On March 30, mom-of-two Brianne Buckman-Kalechstein and her family joined approximately 150 volunteers who descended on Maple Leaf Square in Toronto for an Autism Acceptance FlashMob. Brianne spearheaded the event, which preceded autism night at the Toronto Raptors basketball game.

In the special needs parenting community, I’ve quickly learned how much of a difference others can make. Brianne is one of these people. I first met her through a Facebook group a couple of years ago. I quickly learned how much of an advocate she was—not just for her son, but for the entire autism community. Her organization of the event at Maple Leaf Square showed her dedication to increasing autism awareness in a fun and accessible. I recently chatted with her about advocacy and her family life.

1. Tell us about your family.
My husband David and I have two boys, nine-year-old Mitchell* and seven-year-old Matthew.* Matthew has Asperger’s/high-functioning autism.

2. What was your initial reaction to Matthew’s diagnosis?
It wasn’t a surprise—we knew something was going on beforehand and we were happy to have a diagnosis so we could target what Matthew needed to help him flourish. I’ve asked him how he feels about having Asperger’s and he says he’s proud. I credit this attitude with keeping an open dialogue, focusing on the positives of autism—like his exceptional musicality and his memory—and helping him understand that having Asperger’s also means he needs help with certain things, like self-regulation.

3. How has his diagnosis impacted your family?
During those early years it felt like we centred our family around my younger son, and I worried the boys wouldn’t form a bond. However, Matthew’s autism is just another part of our family that we embrace. The boys have since built a strong friendship—Mitchell is Matthew’s biggest advocate and he teaches his peers about autism by making presentations on World Autism Awareness Day.

4. How did you cope with his diagnosis?
I needed to talk about it. I wanted to learn all I could, and that meant asking tough questions. When I hit a roadblock with public services, I found myself in the principal’s office. She told me that, with the right tools, there were no limits on my son’s potential. I’m lucky that a good friend encouraged me to talk about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) publicly and use my voice to share a positive message about the need for acceptance, and educate the public that people with ASD simply see the world differently—not incorrectly!

5. You’ve become a strong advocate for inclusion and awareness since Matthew’s diagnosis. What specific moment inspired you to take action?
There were many moments, but the one that stands out was Matthew’s first year in dance class. He kept turning the lights off and on during a rehearsal (as the teacher had done the week before). Other moms were giving me this look like, “Tell him to stop it, he’s ruining the rehearsal.” With a smile, I explained that he has autism and that he thinks the lights should go off and on like last week. Their faces showed pity, and then there were whispers. Instead of feeling like I’d made the situation better by telling them, I lost sleep thinking I’d just revealed a dark secret to everyone. I then realized the negative attitude had to stop. My son is talented, smart, social—and he also has autism. It’s simply part of who he is, but not all of it. I’m proud of him, he is proud of himself, and no mom should ever lose sleep thinking their child’s autism is a dark secret. The negative stigma needs to go, and there needs to be acceptance and understanding.

6. What advice would you offer other parents in your situation?
Join online or community groups with parents who share your child’s diagnosis. I use the Asperger’s Society of Ontario, Three to Be’s Parent Advocacy link and Project Autism York Region. Most importantly, never give up, smile, maintain your sense of humour and always advocate for your child.

*Names have been changed

Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary toddler with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s Special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.

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