1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (CDC). When a mother’s expecting her first child, how are her expectations & hopes affected when she learns that such statistics will rapidly affect her new life?
I recently spoke with Priscilla Gilman, author of the acclaimed memoir The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper), a beautiful exploration of our hopes and expectations for our children, our families, and ourselves, & the ways in which experiences may lead us to re-imagine them. Gilman reveals her journey through crisis to joy, illuminating the flourishing of life that occurs when we embrace the unexpected.
I truly appreciate her time speaking with us. Priscilla also has agreed to give one of our readers a FREE signed copy of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy. Further details will be at the end of this post.
Tell us about becoming a mom. How did it change you?
Oh, in so many ways!! Becoming a mother, especially a mother of 2 children with special needs (autism & dyslexia), has made me a much more patient, accepting, & compassionate person. It’s made me less fearful, judgmental, & less concerned about others’ opinions of me. I’m much less perfectionistic & much more open to experience. Having children has humbled me, surprised me, upset every expectation I had for the way my life was going to turn out, & allowed me to bloom into the person I was meant to be: a writer, a teacher, & an advocate for children, for literature and the arts..& for all people who don’t fit easily into boxes and are a little “different”.
Was there a specific experience that inspired you to write?
My book evolved organically out of talks I gave to parents, daycare providers, & teachers beginning in 2003, about a year after we discovered that our older son, Benj, had a rare disorder called hyperlexia. A few years later, I shared all these talks with my dear friend from Yale graduate school who was now a literary agent, and with her encouragement & guidance, I combined them into one cohesive article, which she submitted to numerous magazines and newspapers in 2007. When everyone passed on the article, my agent friend suggested that the material might be a book instead!
What were some of the challenges you encountered while writing the book?
1 big challenge was that the subject of my book was continually changing, growing, evolving, & that the story was ongoing! The other challenge was telling the truth while being kind, in particular when writing about the disintegration of my first marriage.
What have you learned since writing the book & talking to your readers?
What I thought was a very private & personal story has a universal resonance. There are so many gorgeous souls & good people in this world. That sharing, commiserating, empathizing, & connecting rather than withholding, judging, competing, & distancing are what make our lives meaningful & valuable.
I know you have reached a lot of moms with your story. What are some gratifying responses you’ve received?
Here’s an amazing letter I got about a month ago:
“I have to say that if it weren’t for your book, your beautiful writing attached to all of the personal experience I never would have made it through that 1st year. I have gone back & read the book about 10 times now. It is a book that changed my life forever…it was through reading your book that led me to take Jackson to a Developmental Pediatrician & Psychiatrist. If I would have just listened to our pediatrician & early intervention therapist who knows where he (or I) would be!
I can’t thank you enough for this book…I feel as though it could be our family you are writing about. Jackson has made me a better mother, daughter, wife and friend. I actually do stop and “smell the roses” because of Jackson. He has shown me that beautiful things reveal themselves when you take your time and have to wait patiently for them. I had to wait 3 years for him to address me as “mommy” & it was like the most beautiful symphony I had ever heard. I still love hearing his voice call me mommy.
Thank you Priscilla for your wonderful gift, you & Benj will always be like those beloved characters we never forget from our most favorite books.”
I know that you and I share a love of Fred Rogers. Can you talk about why he means so much to you?
Fred Rogers was not only a calm, caring, wise, steady presence in innumerable children’s lives; he was also a wildly inventive, funny & magical being. There’s a scene in my book that describes the overwhelming sense of grief I experienced when I learned of Mr Rogers’ death. I write: “As children, my sister & I had adored the gentle, compassionate Mr. Rogers & the whimsical imaginative world he created. Watching him again with Benj, I’d newly appreciated how ahead of his time he was in his emphasis on emotional intelligence & his respect for the uniqueness of each individual child.” He exemplified everything I think is most important in approaching, teaching, and working with children.
I also recently did an interview with the Fred Rogers Company about their new DVD to help children with autism & their caregivers. If I had to pick the greatest influence on me as far as being an advocate for children goes, it would unquestionably be Mr. Rogers.
Who else inspires you?
My children inspire me immeasurably, every single day. My new husband (I got remarried in Feb ’12) inspires me with his dedication to teaching music to young children in a diverse, urban public school. Those who’ve taught or been therapists for my children inspire me with their ingenuity, compassion, patience, & commitment to making young children’s lives richer and more fulfilling. Growing up in the 70s & 80s, my greatest heroes and inspirations included John Lennon, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Fred Rogers, and Jim Henson. The late, great Levon Helm, whom I got to know personally during the last years of his life, for his extraordinary musicianship, his grit and grace, his exuberance and humility. I think what ties all of these figures together are joy, generosity of spirit, commitment to helping and uplifting others, open-heartedness, and authenticity.
What one piece of advice would you give every new parent?
I always warn my friends about to have babies that the 1st weeks are incredibly difficult & grueling and advise them not to become disheartened or blame themselves if they are not instantly in love with parenting. Beyond that, my best advice for all parents is to make every effort to see & understand. Embrace & cherish the child they actually have, in all his or her intricate complexity & uniqueness. Find the strengths in your child, because every child has them, & use those strengths to help in areas of challenge. Love your children fiercely & advocate for them tirelessly. Teach them how to love fiercely & advocate for themselves.
What are some of your family’s favorite books, movies, and television shows?
I’ve got two boys, 14 & 10, and now a 10 year old stepdaughter, so finding things that please everyone, including the adults, is a bit of a challenge!
Here are some that have worked especially well!
- The Wizard of Oz series
- The Paddington Bear series
- The Phantom Tollbooth
- The Westing Game
- Miss Happiness and Miss Flower
- The Dollhouse
- Little Plum
- The Black Stallion
- The Muppet Movie
- West Side Story
- Fly Away Home
- Meet me in St. Louis
- To Catch a Thief
- American Ninja Warrior (even my stepdaughter!)
- The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew shows from the 1970’s (with my childhood crush Sean Cassidy)
- Sesame Street
- Electric Company
- Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
- The Brady Bunch
We would like to give away a FREE signed copy of Priscilla Gilman‘s book, “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy” to an Angela’s Clues’ Facebook Fan!
To enter this giveaway simply (1) LIKE my Facebook page and (2) SHARE Priscilla Gilman’s post (via Facebook) with a friend! Winner will be chosen at random, on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at noon.
The Anti-Romantic Child was excerpted in Newsweek and featured on the cover of its international edition, The Anti-Romantic Child is an NPR Books Must-Read list, Slate’s Book of the Week, and selected as one of the Best Books by both WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show & The Chicago Tribune. It was also awarded the Mom’s Choice Gold Award, honoring the best in family-friendly media & literature.
Priscilla Gilman received her B.A. summa cum laude & with Exceptional Distinction in English and her Ph.D. in English & American literature from Yale University. She was an English professor at both Yale & Vassar before leaving academia in 2006. With the publication of The Anti-Romantic Child in 2011, Gilman became a full-time author, speaker, & innovative teacher. She now writes regularly about autism, special needs children, parenting, education, & literature for The Daily Beast, NY Times, Chicago Tribune, MORE magazine, & Huff Post Parents. She blogs at www.priscillagilman.com & maintains a very active Facebook page. The NY Times published her op-ed, “Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown,” which was the #1 most emailed article on the NY Times site for the following day & has been extensively disseminated via social media.
Priscilla lives in New York City with her family.