What my autistic son taught me about happiness


It’s that time of year when we are constantly reminded through ads, resolutions, and unrealistic expectations that we are less than others. People are more organized, fitter, harder workers, better looking, and overall live better lives being better people than you and me.

Feel better? Are you overcome with hope and positivity?

Perhaps the happiest human I know is my son Griffin. This might surprise some people because Griffin, 5, is on the autism spectrum. The stereotype for someone on the the spectrum is that he or she becomes easily frustrated by people, lights, sounds, a break in routine. This can lead to anxiety and sometimes depression.

One night recently Griffin woke us up, not crying, not whining, but laughing an uncontrollable, body trembling belly laugh.

Every night around 1 -4 AM Griff crawls into bed with us. In the morning when he wakes, often, even before he opens his eyes, he’s smiling.

Who does that? How can he be so happy?

To be sure, there are challenges. His happiness is predicated on his environment. Listening to the radio in the car is not allowed. Too many questions about his day could lead to tears. He doesn’t want anyone to hold a door open for him because he wants to open it. There are certain “Griffin rules” that must be followed. Ones that we push and the therapists at his ABA clinic push for his long term development.

But most of the time Griffin is happy.

And I am happy with Griffin . . . until the comparisons begin.

I see a five-year-old having a conversation with a parent, and my heart drops a bit not knowing when he’ll be able to tell me about his day.

At his preschool graduation this past spring, where most of the kids Griff’s age would be moving on to Kindergarten, Griff was the only one who had to have a teacher assigned to him. He still threw his “diploma,” made random sounds into the mic, and jumped off the stage. In a room filled with 200 people, I saw through their eyes, and I saw Griffin as less.

At a Christmas program this month, once again, of all the kids ages kindergarten through 5th grade, Griff was the only one who had to have a helper (Holly, who we love!). He stood in front with the biggest smile on his face, vibrating with joy. When the part of the song referenced baby Jesus sleeping in the manger, Griff curled up in a ball on the floor with his hands tucked beneath his head as if he were sleeping. When he spotted me in the audience a few rows back from the front, his smile got even bigger. He pointed at me, hopped up in down, hollered, “Daddy!” and then ran off stage toward me. We heard from several people how much they enjoyed watching Griffin that morning. We did, too.

He wasn’t doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing all the time. He wasn’t being “normal,” he was being Griffin.

And when I focus on Griffin and the love and joy he gives me, he is more than I could’ve ever imagined. But when I look at the other kids his age singing the words, doing what they are supposed to be doing, playing the way they are supposed to be playing, moving through the world the way they are supposed to be moving through it, I feel for Griffin. I feel for him because someday he may see himself as less. I feel for him because sometimes in the shallows of  comparison, I see him through the eyes of others as less.

But with every smile, laugh, hug, joke, and kiss, Griffin reminds me that he is perfect. He is enough. That comparisons to others only make us feel inferior or superior, and both positions are petty places from which to interact with people.

He reminds me happiness is only relative if we allow it to be.

Other people should inspire us to evolve, not see ourselves as less, shaming us to change.

Griffin reminds me that happiness is up to us. Happiness is absolute. And I’m absolutely honored to be his dad.


Angela Parson Myers says:

So glad he got you for a father instead of some he could have gotten.:-)

Terri says:

I broke my rule about reading your blogs and not crying….dam***!That little man is joy in my heart and anyone else who has the honor to be around him. You and Annie have kept Griffin first, Autism second. He is so himself. I only know from afar how hard the difficult times can be and how that spawns the comparisons you write about. Not that it is the same, but even with grown daughters, we still see where they struggle and excel compared to their peers. You and Annie have got this, and what you have are two amazing, unique and deeply loved children. Thanks for writing from your heart.

Kelsey says:

Terri, it helps that we have amazing support, therapists, and home-made hooch makers to help us out! I do think it is the same with any kid, maybe just a bit more magnified and/or earlier in our case. I’m sure Harper will be teaching us that soon enough.

I have one on the spectrum, adult now. Living independently, working, happy. There are difficulties, but the joys far outweigh any of that. If you ever need any been there/done that advice or chat, give me a shout, because I have.

Kelsey says:

Dianne, I didn’t know that. Thanks for the offer. I may take you up on it. We’ve relied a lot on folks who “have been there” before us. In many ways, they’ve (you all have) improved the supports for kids like Griff and parents like us. Thank you!

Sally Lemons says:

Great read! Oh what our sons are teaching, molding, shaping us to who “we” are supposed to be. We are privileged to be their parents even when it is hard. But oh the joys! The joys of when they just amaze us 🙂 And no, we can’t have the radio on in the car either. Some days things like that make me sad, and then other days I think “Who cares?” it really doesn’t matter. They are their own, and they are AWESOME!! You and Annie and your beautiful family have the happiest of New Year’s 🙂

Kelsey says:

Thanks, Sally! The same to your family. Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Stanley says:

I so appreciate your honesty here. Beautifully written. Comparisons lead to inferior or superior and neither is a place I want to be!

Barbara Marker says:

This is excellent. I have some idea where you are coming from. Thanks for sharing.

Leeson Weaver says:

This story makes me so happy! Griffin just made my day!!!

Dana Williams says:

I LOVE all of this. Now have some popcorn. 🙂

Let your voice be heard!