How This First-Time Mom Went from 'Confused' to 'Confident' After Her Son's Autism Diagnosis: 'I Needed to Take Action'

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Name: Susana Montes
Location: New York, New York
Occupation: Case worker and disability advocate
Family situation: My husband Socrates Aquino and I share one son, Ian Aquino, who is 12 years old.
Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: Approach life one day at a time and it will help you become a more patient and understanding parent.

How I Parent
National Dance Institute

What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
My husband and I always wanted to have children, but it took a little longer than we had planned. When it finally happened, we were so excited and happy. I had an amazing pregnancy and was even able to work until almost the week I gave birth.

Once our son Ian was born, it was tough in the beginning but we quickly adjusted and I was able to go back to work after six months. As life continued for me and my family, I started to realize that around 18 months, my son wasn’t developing at the speed at which I had expected. Once it was confirmed that he had developmental delays, I began to research pediatricians and therapists to help guide his development. By the time he was 3, Ian was diagnosed with autism.

In that moment, I remember feeling so confused. My husband and I didn’t know anything about autism and we didn’t know anyone who had it at the time, so we had so many questions. Although the news hit us hard, I didn’t allow us to stay stuck in that moment for long. I knew I needed to take action.

The best thing I had done for myself and for Ian was finding a community that we could join together to make our new normal a little bit easier. Things really started to open up by 2017, when Ian was 10 and we enrolled him in a dance program at the National Dance Institute (NDI). They have a program called The Dream Project, which caters to children with special needs. They hold workshops for families and children with disabilities to make sure that they’re placed in a class that’s right for them and then they’re paired with an able-bodied child throughout the session. At the end of the program, they have a dance performance for family and friends.

How I Parent
National Dance Institute

The reason why this program was so helpful for us is that as Ian got older, I wanted him to interact with other kids who were just like him. I wanted him to have new experiences and to have fun just being a kid. When he first started, he was a little shy and felt a bit lost. But soon, he began to make friends and that motivated him to keep on going. I loved it as well because I was able to meet other parents who were going through the same things as I was. Now, he participates every year and even when we plan vacations or family events, he makes sure we don’t schedule anything during his classes.

How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?
Growing up, I was an obedient child. I learned a lot from my mother but when I had Ian, I had to drastically change my parenting style. I needed to learn how to parent a child with special needs.

Right away, I signed myself up for parenting classes and even to this day, I still go, because my son is growing and I want to be able to help him the best I can. I read and research a lot. I buy books written by moms who have children on the spectrum, I attend workshops and meetings and things like that. Ian is a sweet and well-behaved boy and connects easily with others, but I know continuing to educate myself is my way of learning how to be a more confident, patient and understanding parent.

How I Parent
National Dance Institute

What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
I honestly love spending time with my family. We’re always joking around and laughing. We’re a team, you know? We also try to take vacations just so we get to enjoy one another without any distractions. Family time is the best time for me.

What’s the hardest part?
In my case, I feel as though there’s still a lot I don’t know. I try very hard to educate myself as much as I can but I miss certain things because I don’t know everything. I’ll start to feel guilty and I’ll start to blame myself, thinking I should’ve learned this and that earlier, but then I have to remember to forgive myself, too.

Recently, Ian has started to express his desire to be more independent. He told me he wanted to start taking the train by himself and at first I was like, no way. But then, that same night, I started to look into information about how he could travel alone and what I can do to help prepare him. It was so hard for me because it feels like yesterday when I was rocking him to sleep and now he wants to go on the train by himself. These moments are really tough, but I cannot hold him back from what will help him grow into being a teenager who wants to do things on his own.

How I Parent
National Dance Institute

What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
I’d definitely encourage them to find a community. It could be a community for babies, younger children or even for teens. It could be a dance community, like the one we’re a part of at NDI. Once you’re around other parents and kids you feel connected to, you’ll feel more at ease in many ways, as opposed to trying to figure out everything on your own.

What would you want your child to say about you as a parent?
I would love for Ian to say that I was a good mom and that I always tried my best to help him and other families like ours. I want him to always know that he is kind, funny and that I love him unconditionally, and will be here for him always.

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