FORGING AN AUTISM WARRIOR "Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through forging, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion." - Morihei Ueshiba For over three decades, I used the word “normal” to describe people who seemed, well, normal. They spoke normal, walked normal, and did normal things like watch college football on Saturday afternoon.But, I was missing something important and obvious. Normal people do not exist. While many of us try to conform to how we define normal, the truth is that everyone is very different with their own struggles and gifts. This remains true whether we see it or not. I met Jenn Toney over a year ago at a West Georgia Autism Foundation meeting. She is one of the happiest people you will ever meet. But, she has not always had that confident, gregarious disposition. Jenn tells us in her own words: “Harper was a very active baby. He was able to pick up his head the day after he was born. He was running at nine months. The ultrasound technician even joked around saying, ‘In my fifteen years of doing this, he is one of the most active babies I have ever seen. You will have your hands full!’ She was right, I have had my hands full, and I certainly wouldn’t change it for anything. I was so excited to see him excel so fast. So, it caught me by surprise when he wasn’t speaking when other kids his age were. When my son first started showing signs of autism, I didn’t want to admit he may have it. It was still the ‘A’ word to me. I told myself, ‘He’s a boy. Boys develop slower than girls’ and ‘He will catch on’. Time passed. My fear grew. My denial became more difficult to maintain. When Harper was going to preschool, there were times I would have to pick him up when he had a bad day. Harper would get so frustrated since he couldn’t explain why he was upset. I hated seeing my son get so upset when he couldn’t tell me anything. Finally, around two years old, Harper was evaluated by the PALS program at Central Elementary (If you suspect any learning concerns, please reach out to them. I highly recommend them.) and was transferred to an inclusive classroom at Central Elementary to help him learn better. In August 2017, I was forced to face a fear that had controlled me for far too long. Harper was diagnosed with autism. That day, I was presented with two distinct choices. (1) I could ignore the diagnosis, remain in denial, and continue to live in fear, or (2) ask God for the courage to accept the diagnosis and defeat my fear. I chose the second option. I also chose to become a warrior. Today, Harper has speech and occupational therapy each week. He has an IEP (Individualized Education Program), and we have a routine we follow with him. I no longer see autism as the ‘A’ word. He sees the world differently than most do, yet he is so sweet and loving. I have seen him do things that I thought were impossible for anyone. For instance, he takes very complicated pieces of machines and equipment apart and puts them back together perfectly. Several people tell him he will make a great engineer. Interestingly, he has taught me more about life than anyone I have ever met. When he has trouble learning something or gets frustrated, we think ‘outside of the box.’ Thinking outside the box allows us to come up with creative solutions to the problems he faces. This makes it fun and he wants to learn. I am his voice. I am his warrior. I am a warrior for others with autism. Becoming an autism warrior was neither natural nor easy for me. But, God forged this fearful, mother who was in deep denial into a warrior through adversity, courage, and victory. Harper has become a warrior too.His autism diagnosis did not defeat either of us. Only fear has been defeated. Harper may not be what society considers ‘normal.’ Actually, he is much more than that. While he battles continued challenges, he also refines the special gifts that few people possess. Many autistic children, like Harper, bring a wealth of creativity and contributions to our world by thinking outside the box.” Today, Jenn serves on the Board of Directors for the West Georgia Autism Foundation. Her position as the Social Media Chairperson has delivered the truth about autism to countless Georgians and people across the country. She has also created mass awareness and is destroying the stigma associated with autism. Jenn Toney is no longer gripped by fear. She grips the fear of others. Thank you for your service, Jenn. You have affected more people than you even know; including me. Jason W. Swindle, Sr.