Lunch date with autistic teen daughter is one mom's dream come true

Susan Deland and daughter Diane

I took my 13-year-old daughter, Diane, to a Chinese restaurant the other day for lunch. We usually go to the take-out place in our town, but this time we went to the fancier sit-down place that we had never been to before. 

Several years ago, I would never have attempted such an outing. The potential for disaster was too great. Diane is on the autism spectrum, and for much of her early life, outings were fraught with tantrums or meltdowns, either because she wanted to be left alone or because she couldn’t handle the assault on her senses that so many places gave her.

Since then, her progress has been amazing, and new experiences are now opportunities for fun and enjoyment.

We walked into the serene restaurant where an enormous tank of koi fish was close to some of the tables. Expecting Diane to be afraid of them, I started to choose a table far from that tank, but she asked to sit at the table nearby. She was mesmerized watching the fish, and she also respected the sign that read, “Please Do Not Touch.”

The waitress brought over a pot of Chinese tea and two little cups and saucers. I said, “I would love to have some tea,” and waited. Diane picked up the pot by its handle and poured us both some tea. It was fragile, heavy, and steaming — difficult for just about anyone to maneuver, and particularly difficult for someone like Diane who has problems with motor movements and coordination. But she handled it ever so carefully without a spilled drop.

The meal progressed with shared steamed shrimp and vegetables and a delightful conversation about family plans, school field trips, and Diane’s favorite Katy Perry songs.

At the end of the meal, the waitress brought us fortune cookies. Diane started to eat her cookie, and the slip of paper fell out. She picked it up and read:

Things usually do not happen overnight. It takes time and hard work.

Hearing that message read so deftly by my daughter — after having finished such a lovely lunch date — was a dream come true.

I closed my eyes and cupped the warm teacup in my hands. I gave a silent prayer of thanks for this remarkable progress.

On the way home I thought about the first steps that we had taken back in 2003 that set us on this path to success. We’d had the incredible good fortune to have a sister-in-law in the medical profession in New York who steered us to Columbia University for Diane’s initial diagnosis and treatment. It was there that we were introduced to Dr. Marion Blank, and her behavior program for young children on the autism spectrum. It is this program, now known as Spectacular Bond, that helped me to become a more effective parent for Diane and for Diane to emerge from her isolation.

At age 3, Diane never responded when I called her name or had any interest in doing things with me. She would chew on a stiff rubber dog toy to calm herself. She would knock over her brother’s Lego creations when she barreled into his room in a frenzy of over-stimulation or anger. Her muscle tone was so weak that she had trouble descending stairs. Through the Spectacular Bond program, I developed a new parenting relationship with Diane, and she began to feel much more calm, to look at us, to sit quietly at the dinner table, and to seek us out for guidance. Over time, she developed friendships, engaged in group activities, and had learned to read at the age of 4. The happiness quotient for our whole family grew exponentially.

A word about koi fish. I happen to be strongly attracted to them too and recently found this description of them:

“The Japanese associate koi with perseverance in adversity. Because of its strength and determination to overcome obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals.”

Coincidence that Diane and I feel an attraction to koi fish? Not at all.

Susan Deland is the mother of 14-year-old Alex and 13-year-old Diane, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Susan is co-author of the new book, Spectacular Bond: Reaching the Child with Autism, with Dr. Marion Blank and Dr. Suzanne Goh.