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What autism does to a mother

Learning to cope

Nicole Kalkowski knows that beyond the stress, fear, and family turmoil that come with learning that your child has this devastating disorder, there is also a devastating aloneness. In our second installment of Living With Autism, we follow this mother of three as she struggles to save her son and finds help - for her children and for herself - in unexpected places.

"I kept turning down help"

After the prayer vigil, Nicole's "wall" began to crack. "I felt so cared for during the vigil, which was very healing," she says. But it was a new friend, Sue Stigler, who finally convinced Nicole to truly drop her defenses.

Sue and Nicole were in the same social circle at church, but they weren't close. So it surprised Nicole when the 41-year-old mom, who has a son Ryan's age, took on the role of best friend. Sue began showing up at her door throughout the summer wanting to help — she stopped by with uplifting greeting cards, cookies, chocolate, and offers to shop for groceries and even to clean Nicole's house. "I kept turning her down," says Nicole. "I wanted help, but I felt like I was drowning in everything I needed."
Sue persisted, and even packed Nicole's suitcase for a family trip to Laguna Beach, CA, with Tim's friends and their families. Nicole had contemplated canceling the vacation because going away with Ryan seemed too hard. But Sue convinced her that it would be a good chance for the family to have some fun. "I'm so glad Sue pushed us to go," says Nicole. "I bonded with the wives of Tim's friends, who were very understanding on the trip — probably because they got a chance to see all my day-to-day challenges firsthand."

The following month, Nicole finally felt comfortable enough to ask Sue for a favor. Every day, Nicole drove by a park near her house, a place she used to go with other moms but had been avoiding recently because she knew Ryan wouldn't react well to all the activity. She missed being there. Hesitantly, Nicole asked Sue if she'd be open to playdates at the park every Monday with their sons. Sue was happy to oblige. "When I worried that Ryan would scream the whole time, Sue said, 'Oh, please. Like my son isn't going to scream. They're 2 years old.' Sue's so lighthearted and doesn't make it seem like Ryan is so much different from her son," Nicole says. "She's helped me laugh more, and just makes me feel like a normal mom."
Nicole is also grateful to Sue for the gift she gave Ryan — a friend of his own. "One big fear any mother in my situation has is that her child won't have friends," she says. "After a couple of play-dates, Evan would climb into his car seat as he and Sue were getting ready to leave and say, 'Ryan, you my friend.' It touches me every time I hear that.

"I realized that there are people who really do want to help; you just have to let them know that they can."

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