Maya Corneille is a writer, professor, scholar and most importantly — a mother. In today’s sisterhood story, Maya shares a personal story about the love and support she receives from her sister-friend while raising her daughter.
Weeks after my daughter turned two, I started hearing progressively scary words, “Autism like behaviors” turned into “high risk for autism” and then finally “autism spectrum disorder.”
Appointments full of descriptions of deficits in this area or that area had me submerged more deeply in my anxious thoughts about her future. My daughter, M, was content to spin and dance and laugh by herself, but I knew that part of her learning to communicate meant I needed to be present for her.
We hired a speech therapist and occupational therapist. But our days were still filled with her falling on the floor kicking and screaming when we couldn’t figure out what food she was asking for. Autism can look many ways, for us it looked like reading sight words at age 2 and spelling the days of the week at age 3. It also looked like screaming and fighting and crying whenever we were near fluorescent lights or in a room with people talking loudly. The times she scratched our faces, her face, or her teachers’ faces when we spoke loudly, she looked like a cat clawing its way out of a water filled tub. But to some of her teachers, especially the one who said, “maybe if you put her around more children of other different races,” M looked like a little Black girl existing in the teacher’s stereotype of Black children.
At 3AM, while trying to occupy my restless mind, I scrolled through my Facebook feed terrified by the articles that activist friends posted about how Black children are being suspended at a rate many times the rate of white children for minor infractions and as early as preschool. I feared her teachers wouldn’t understand that for her everyday noises were deafening and fluorescent lights were blinding, and that not responding is not the same as not knowing.
But most of all, I was terrified because everything I know about teaching a Black, Haitian, African girl to survive in this world has to do with teaching her to fearlessly use your voice.
Autism made me question if I was equipped to do this for her.
I described all of the appointments with doctors and evaluators and therapists in nauseating detail to my sister, a speech therapist at an autism clinic, hoping she would say, you can’t trust these doctors.
And at first, she did say this. But after she came to visit us and saw our challenges for herself, she said, “we’ll just have to use a different strategy to teach her to talk.” Even when she could hear the pull in my voice for her to say just ignore the doctors, she skillfully turned the conversation to get me to talk about the new thing M was doing.
Because a sisterhood of healing does not lie to make you feel better in the moment, a sisterhood of healing works to help you be better.
When my sister returned home she asked, “What’s M’s favorite food?” She sent me these Powerpoint slides that had pictures of M next to the words “I want” and pictures of her favorite foods with words by them that she could use to ask for food. And she sent us videos to show us how to use them. She must’ve heard my thought, this is way too complex for M, because my sister said,
“She can do this. You can do this. And don’t be surprised when soon she can just read the words.”
My sister reminded me of what I had already known but forgotten in the haze of hearing about deficits. She reminded me to expect brilliance and that today’s struggle does not define who you are and can become.
She kept sending us pictures and activities, ones that said “hi mommy” and “bye daddy,” and giving us suggestions of things to do, like putting a hammock in our house so that it didn’t take her three hours to fall asleep. On the day, I was trying to move M from her hammock to her bed, M shouted, “No mom, I don’t want that, okay.” I was so stunned I turned my body into a hammock and rocked her against my chest that moved up and down slowly for the first time in months.
Even though we had a lot of work ahead of us, M showed me that her powerful voice was in there waiting for us to help her find it. And I had a sisterhood full of women that would help us get there. And most importantly, one sister who did all of these amazing things without us asking.