Black, white, doctor, Christian, teacher, stay-at-home-mom, parent, honor-student etc.… These are all labels at which we can be identified. They are titles we wear with honor like a badge for all to know who we are, where we’re from, and what we’ve accomplished. They are a major source of pride at which we may have spent years of time, money and labor to attain and require a certain level of respect from people to address us as we live by the standards of the weight they carry.
What about the labels that are not so honorable? The titles we have been assigned. The tags that carry a negative connotation and sometimes even stifle our ability to thrive. Single-mom, at-risk youth, divorce’, overweight, retarded, hot-tempered, emotional, 3rd string, nerd, dead-beat dad, naïve, etc.…
From an early age, our children run the risk of being tagged with various labels that can define the way others see them and more importantly, how they see themselves. They can be given by teachers, peers, mentors, coaches and even us as parents.
When my son was three years old, we noticed he was not meeting the typical developmental milestones for children in his age group. He wasn’t talking, making eye contact, showing signs of expression or interactive response. Doctors and school officials performed several tests to further investigate these concerns. Thereafter, they diagnosed him with autism. And there it was, my son had been labeled. The experts in the field, used professional, fact-based information to determine that he was socially/developmentally “disabled.”
My husband and I were devastated to receive this news. We were so young. So new to parenthood. We were clueless. The only word we heard was “disability.” The depth of that term left so many uncertainties and filled my imagination with limitations to abound. After grieving for a few days, feeling sorry for myself, and researching aimlessly on how to solve this problem, I prayed. And then, believe it or not, I LISTENED. I heard the Lord tell me so clearly, that He was the God of possibility. That in Him, we are ABLE to do ALL things. So if the Word was true, the term “DISABILITY” was contrary to His Word.
I picked myself up and decided that I was going to turn my brain off on this matter and be led by the Holy Spirit on EXACTLY what my son needed in order to prosper in every area of his life. I must say, this journey has been one of the greatest, yet toughest of my life. However, I am a teacher. I am a Christian. I LOVE children. My husband and I were well equipped for the road ahead and we took it step by step. We were not going to let the label given by the doctors trump the label given by the Word of God.
For the last several years our family took each stage of this process day by day. Every step was completely new to us. Every challenge required a custom plan that I couldn’t find in a book, online, or from friends. I completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit. For an example, there was a season when my son would cry over everything. Each day there would be an instance at school or at home that seemed very feasible, but for some reason it was overwhelming for him. Now my natural response would have been, “suck it up. You are a big boy! You can’t be crying over this little stuff!” However, that would have broken him. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t allow him to let his emotions govern his behavior. The Lord simply gave us positive incentives for him to work toward in order to stop crying. Sounds super easy, and IT WAS. GRACE. He stopped crying and hasn’t had a problem since.
Of course, over the years, my son has battled many other struggles throughout his developmental journey, such as staying focused in class, managing time properly, playing well with other kids, using language appropriately, articulating his thoughts accurately, participating in group activities, building confidence and so many others. Most of them didn’t come with a two-week solution. Many of these challenges took YEARS to conquer and some of them required extreme decisions in order to ensure his success.
When homework and daily routines became a bit overwhelming, I stepped away from a 15-year career in order to be at home. We downsized our living expenses and even moved to a smaller home in a rural area in order to meet the growing needs of our family. And as always, we saw God’s hand throughout the entire process. We had all the tools, and resources; we knew the places to be and times to be there. He blessed us with amazing teachers, pastors, friends, coaches, classmates and role models to help aid and support us throughout our experience. This was certainly a team effort. And whilst we had great individuals involved in our mission, we never made his diagnosis public. We never gave explanations, concessions or excuses for his performance or behavior. As a matter of fact, we never even muttered the word autism in his presence. He had NO clue. We simply assessed his abilities and held him to the standard of excellence. If you can be great, BE GREAT. If you can’t be great, let’s do whatever we can to help you be YOUR greatest.
Cole’s diagnosis was given when he was 3 years old. Last week he turned 18. And last month he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. In that moment, on the football field of a school in North Georgia, my closest family and I held a sign with the words “GO COLE” in HUGE capital letters. He sat in the front row in the top 10% of his class. He wore a sash around his neck that said, “HONOR GRADUATE,” along with a gold cord for his involvement in the National Honor Society and a purple one for the National Technical Honor Society. Earlier that week, he was given several awards along with $40,000 in local and national scholarships. Two weeks before that, he was named Prom King of his high school, earlier that year he was named Most Valuable Runner of his cross-country team and set 2 new school records for his times in the 1600- and 3200-meter run. He founded the chess club, was active in FCA, TSA, academic club, and volunteered to run the live broadcast of the boys’ and girls’ basketball games. He started his freshmen year with few friends, little to no involvement, while struggling to keep up socially, academically, and certainly athletically. By his senior year, he had grown the respect and admiration from so many. They simply loved him to greatness.
During his journey, no one had a CLUE of the tremendous effort it took for him to reach his goals. The extra hours it took to complete his homework assignments, the weekend/off season practices he devoted to or the level of commitment it took for him to stay on top. He quietly pressed his way…
In February of this year, after two weeks for testing and meeting with several school and state officials, Cole’s autism diagnosis was reversed. Teachers and staff members were thrilled for him and all the progress he made over the 15 years of his journey. Shortly after that meeting, we carefully revealed to Cole of the label he was given early in his life. He was so shocked. So proud. So grateful. We reflected for HOURS, making sense of all the various steps we had taken, and all the beautiful people who were so helpful throughout.
In the fall, Cole will attend Grand Canyon University, in Phoenix, Arizona. There, he will study Electrical Engineering and Technology. We are beyond grateful for the first part of his incredible journey and how God used him to defy the labels given to him early on and replaced them with ones that carry great honor. I cannot wait to see what is in store for his bright future.
As we all endeavor to establish our identity, as we go on our own growth and developmental adventures, take on many different roles, hats and labels, I pray that we will BOLDY seek out the labels given to us by our Heavenly Father. I pray that if you or your loved one has been assigned a label, description, prescription, diagnosis, or title that doesn’t line up with what you know is true, I dare you to push past the limitations of that label given to you (even by the experts in the field). That you fight the good, and sometimes seemingly long fight of faith. And that you run your BEST race… not to the best of YOUR ability, but to the best of HIS ability!!!!! That tag doesn’t have to be a life sentence. YOU WERE BORN TO WIN!!!!!