Mom of two Rebekah McClelland learned that she had Asperger's Syndrome as an adult in 2014. As a mother, she's been dedicated to raising her sons — who have also been diagnosed with autism — with the understanding that it doesn't hold them back in any way. For Rebekah, learning that she had Asperger's Syndrome was the answer she had been looking for.
"It was the key, the answer, the why and the why not," she told POPSUGAR. "My oldest son had been diagnosed shortly before. I was very open with him about what it meant when he was diagnosed and we were actively learning and growing with it. I remember one day very clearly: we were sitting and doing his homework and I had to get up to stop the dishwasher so I could focus. My kiddo looked up, cocked his head to one side and said, 'Momma, you do a lot of things like me. I'm pretty sure you're autistic, too.' And then looked back down at his paper like he'd asked me what was for dinner. It was the beginning of a lot of realizations for me. It was also so much relief. I had always known I was different. Now I could understand it and learn how to move forward."
Now, Rebekah wants to clear up some misconceptions about individuals with autism, noting that, of course, people on the spectrum still have plenty of empathy.
"My biggest pet peeve is others may think we lack empathy," she explained. "We are capable at times of shutting it down but only because when we feel a situation we feel it BIG. Once I was at a school basketball game where one of the boys fell and hit his head. His mother got up and went calmly to him and then calmly back to her seat. I, on the other hand, couldn't stop my full-body sobs. We feel everything immensely bigger than a typical person: fear, pain, empathy, love, joy, everything."
Additionally, Rebekah wants others to know that although people with autism might need to socialize in smaller doses, they still very much enjoy being around people.
"I know what it feels like to hate the tag in my shirt, to be overwhelmed in a crowd, feel confused by a social situation, or be unable to focus because of a continuous sound."
"It's true that we may need it in smaller doses and it is much more enjoyable with people that we know and are comfortable with," she explained. "But many of us actually enjoy it very much. I have put a lot of work into my social abilities. I learn specific patterns of those that I interact with: body language, language cues, and things that I can or cannot say to them. I keep running lists for everyone and access them as I need them. It sounds robotic in a way, but it is used because I care deeply about people and want to make them comfortable and happy."
Given her diagnosis, Rebekah can understand some of the struggles her sons have gone through, whether it's a reaction to being overstimulated or managing their feelings.
"I know what it feels like to hate the tag in my shirt, to be overwhelmed in a crowd, feel confused by a social situation, or be unable to focus because of a continuous sound," she said. "Most times it means that when they are experiencing those things that I can be extremely understanding. There are other times that we are all frustrated, and it's not an uncommon thing to hear 'I'm having sensory issues' in our house. We are pretty good about giving space/quiet when it's heard."
Rebekah is also able to share "hacks" with her sons when challenges crop up, as she's learned to manage some of her personal struggles over the years.
"Autism tends to come with a lot of rigidity in order to reduce anxiety but we all work very hard to not be rigid."
"These hacks make little things that may seem impossible possible," she said. "This is also where the ingenuity comes in. My brain thinks in patterns and problem solves in an extremely logical way. So when new things pop up, I am immediately working away on what the solution will look like. All of this takes adaptation. I'm sure my boys are tired of hearing me say that it will be the key to their success, but I will keep saying it. We live in a world that we are extremely sensitive to and that will be constantly changing. Autism tends to come with a lot of rigidity to reduce anxiety but we all work very hard to not be rigid. A situation comes up and we are immediately looking for what our options are. And then we move forward. Simple, but it takes practice."
Although no two people with autism are alike — it's a spectrum, after all — being able to understand what her children may be experiencing helps Rebekah navigate challenging situations.
"I am grateful that in a lot of cases I know how they are feeling," she shared. "We aren't exactly alike, most people on the spectrum aren't. But it at least gives us a jumping off point in a tough situation. We talk about everything: 'I'm thinking/feeling this,' 'I need this right now,' and 'This would make it easier/harder for me.' One of my biggest hopes for them is that they are self-aware and self-reliant. My personal goal for each day is that my children feel loved, safe, and understood. And sometimes that means other things get let go. "