Madison Beresford is writer, autistic advocate, PhD clinician, husband, father of three boys, one of whom is also on the autism spectrum, and Star Wars fanatic. Last week we shared Madison’s article on the importance of teaching sexual safety to children on the spectrum. His wife, Becky is a certified life coach, speaker, teacher, and author. This week they both shared their experience learning about Madison’s autism diagnosis and how they are raising their three boys to embrace their unique identities and respect differences.
You were diagnosed with autism at the age of 32. How has your life changed from that point? Specifically, have you noticed any changes in your relationships with your family, friends, wife, or children?
Madison: Before being diagnosed, I had lived a life feeling out of place. I’ve used the analogy of being in a foreign country, and while I may look like I fit in, I’ve never understood the language or culture. The difference with having an adult diagnosis is that over the years, I have become pretty good at wearing a “mask,” pretending to speak and understand said foreign culture. I just didn’t realize it.
Having an autism diagnosis confirmed at any age can bring about some substantial emotions and thoughts. Being diagnosed as a married father of three has been a unique experience all unto itself. I think the most significant adjustment post diagnosis has been the relationship I’ve had with “me.” Struggling with the things that an undiagnosed autistic might struggle with for so many years has some marks. But having a name for what felt like a cloud of quirks, struggles and difficulties really put my heart at ease. The relief I felt from having a name for all these things has been unmatched, and I’m grateful for it. It hasn’t been easy all the time, and I have lots of growing to do, but I’m quite happy with things.
The potential for negative aftermath after sharing my diagnosis with others was definitely a fear I had early on. My grandparents had helped with the investigative process by answering questions about my childhood and had been very accepting. As was my brother, in-laws, cousin and a couple friends. I definitely heard the traditional responses of “You don’t look autistic,” “It must be very mild,” or “My niece’s cousin’s former roommate’s child has autism, and you’re not like them.” I’ve been open to conversations when needed, and that’s certainly helped when interacting with frustrating statements. My wife has been beyond understanding, and I know she’s processing things as well (she’s pretty awesome, I love every day with her). I had a really memorable conversation with my autistic son where I told him about my diagnosis. He was elated and let out a very cute gasp. He and I have a special connection, and I really enjoy our bond. We do occasionally drive each other (and my wife) nuts because of competing needs; he loudly enjoys stimming on the piano, which kicks my audible sensory issues into overdrive. My other boys are young enough to not be seeing another difference, and I’m just “dad,” one of my favorite things to be.
Becky: I think Madison’s Autism diagnosis has helped us see what has always been, but now we get to view our relationship through a set of clear lenses. My husband has always been autistic. He’s never NOT had it… This official diagnosis just allows us to take in the whole picture instead of fragmented pieces. As he continues to accept himself fully for the first time in his life, I am learning how to operate from a point of understanding instead of confusion. When we were first married, many of our conflicts did not make sense to me. I didn’t understand why he would communicate like he did or react to certain situations in a particular manner. Fast forward to today, and I find myself back in the learning seat as a student. Except this time I’m studying my husband and discovering how to love him in ways that benefit his heart and needs. It’s a clumsy, grace-filled, imperfect journey, but we are glad to be walking it out together.
How did you become interested in your work as a family counselor?
Madison: I started to pursue an education and career in faith-based family counseling soon after my wife and I were married. Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the pathway I had chosen was in itself draining, and I’ve been happy to make some adjustments to better fit my temperament and autistic needs. I have a strong heart and desire to see people succeed and have redirected that passion toward helping fellow autistics. I plan on changing things up a bit again soon, refocusing path for life coaching autistic young adults.
Your oldest son is also on the autism spectrum. Do you have any advice for families who also have an autistic child among neurotypical siblings? In particular, how can we go about teaching children to embrace differences and advocate for acceptance?
Madison: I would encourage parents to teach their children, neurotypical or neurodiverse, to respect and honor the differences of other people in their lives. Our autistic son has two neurotypical brothers. These three boys are constantly rambunctious in their own individual ways. My wife and I are busy teaching them that everyone is different, and we make a conscious effort to point out and commend those differences. To our boys, this is “normal.” Modeling a solid belief that everyone is created equal and worthy of respect is a very important standard in our home. We celebrate diversity, encourage compassion, hold tight to the Creator of love, and honor gifts and struggles. If parents themselves are willing to hold to these ideals, their children will model them.
Becky: The foundation of our home is simple: We are loved by God just as we are, right where we are. And we want to emulate this truth in our relationships with each other. To be honest, we have never sat down with our neurotypical kids and discussed the importance of accepting their older brother. It’s just a given! We love each other and accept each other as the unique individuals God has made us to be. There are times we need to explain why our oldest boy is acting the way he is, but often our younger two are barely even phased by our explanations because this is their normal. Embracing differences is part of their everyday lives, and we pray that as they continue to grow into the young men God has created them to be, they will change the world through their ability to love people right where they are. If anything, we have had more conversations with our oldest son because he notices he is different from his family and friends. But again, we stress the beauty of diversity and how God created him with purpose and passion. We hope ALL of our boys realize that they are not a mistake, but instead, they are good and perfect gifts from above.
What prompted you to begin your online community Embracing Atypical? Who is your ideal audience?
Madison: Being diagnosed put me into an information overdrive, searching everywhere to find anything that I could digest and discover about my new self-awareness. I found the world to be full of “experts,” articles, books and groups for autistics… So long as the autistic is a child. I think that somewhere somehow people have forgotten that autistic children grow up into autistic adults because the resources for those over the age of 18 are simply just not there. Finding information about autism in adulthood was a challenge, and so out of that experience, I created “Embracing Atypical,” an online community designed to inspire and give a voice to people affected by atypical differences and disabilities. The blog is curated and written by myself and Joe, a lifelong friend who is also learning to accept his own neurological distinctiveness. Neurodiverse people are a valuable thread in the tapestry of humanity, pushing us forward to create advantages and see the beauty in neurological differences as crucial to the human race.
What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocate make?
Madison: To put it bluntly, neurotypical activists don’t listen. The amount of autistic silencing so called neurotypical “advocates” engage in is more than frustrating. Simon Baron-Cohen, a major voice and cognitive neuroscientist famously tweeted wondering, “Why did it take 70 years to acknowledge sensory hyper-sensitivity?” Had autistics been asked, it would have been discovered in 70 minutes. True advocacy is impossible when autistic voices are overruled by neurotypical people that simply believe they know better, speak louder, and cannot fully understand the experiences we have.
Becky: Yeah, I think I can answer this one pretty well since I’ve made plenty of mistakes! Ha! I think sometimes neurotypicals are scared to offend and therefore, they don’t engage. Instead, they sit back and fight for awareness and acceptance, but they don’t take the chance and engage with the Autistic community. I think the BEST thing anyone can do when they are trying to understand something is to ask questions and listen. Too many times I’ve tried to use the right language and do all the right things, when really people just want you to try and understand. They want you to put your pre-packaged perspectives on the shelf, and instead attempt to see things from their point of view. We need to choose to pursue people with an open hearts and minds. Only then can we really hear what is needed to help them thrive and succeed.
What are you doing now for your oldest son that you believe will help him develop a positive autistic identity?
Madison: Helping my son develop a positive autistic identity has been a process. He’s beginning to notice his differences, primarily in social interactions and sensory needs. We are working to combat negativity by reminding him that God made him in exactly the way he intended and that he also has great gifts to be proud of because of his autistic neurology. Additionally, I think he will model the attitude I have toward my own autism, and I’m making an effort to vocalize autistic pride when possible to encourage him to be happy with his identity as well. It’s a process, but he, like each of our children, know that they are incredible boys who are changing the world.
Becky: I may have answered this earlier, but we want our boy to know he is perfectly and wonderfully made, just like every other human on this planet. When he starts to doubt himself or wish he was someone else (which we’ve heard multiple times already, and he’s only 7!), we try to redirect him to the truth. Every day I tell my boys three things before they go to bed: 1.) You are loved. 2.) You are important. 3.) You are going to change the world. Our oldest goes through so much each day and faces incredible challenges, but no matter what happens, those three statements will always remain the same. We want him to be proud of who he is. We want him to embrace ALL of his intricacies. Autism is part of his fabric and with it comes incredible gifts that will change people’s lives forever… including his own.
What is your favorite Star Wars character and quote?
Madison: Alright getting to the important questions now! 😉 As my wife knows, asking me about Star Wars is asking for a guaranteed info dump, but I’ll try and stay to the point! Here we go:
“The greatest teacher, failure is.” Yoda is telling Luke, my favorite character, to let himself learn from his mistakes and give them permission to become a source of wisdom. This quote sums up my experiences over the last several months perfectly and is a great reminder.
Becky: I don’t know if these characters are my favorite ones, but Madison and I totally quote Han and Leia. For Christmas last year I bought him a shirt and a matching one for myself… Mine has a picture of Leia in the background with the words I LOVE YOU written over it. His has Han standing solo in the background with the classic line displayed across the front: I KNOW. I’m glad he knows I love him just for him.