When Ethan and Savannah were 2, we got the dreaded diagnosis: autism. Sixteen years later, I’ve learned some surprising lessons about business and life.
This article was originally published on Inc.com
When my triplets were born, I quickly learned that preparation is the key to success.
Set up an assembly line of food to feed three ravenous toddlers? Check.
Install gates all over the house to keep the kids safe even as they scrambled in three different directions? Check.
Carry a bag full of wipes wherever we went to clean up the inevitable disasters? Double check.
Whatever challenges the day would hold, I knew the answer was to prepare, prepare, prepare. But nothing could prepare me for one fateful day when we took two of the triplets to the pediatrician.
I had been concerned because Ethan and Savannah, at age 2, seemed not to respond when I called out their names. I thought they might be hard of hearing. The doctor had a different diagnosis. “I think they may be autistic,” he said.
At the time, I had barely even heard of the term. The doctor handed me a stack of pamphlets detailing the condition, and after loading up the kids in our minivan, I sat behind the wheel in the parking lot and started reading them.
I started to cry. Actually, I completely broke down.
I was consumed with questions. How could this happen to us? How did our kids get this? What was going to happen to them?
But after two weeks of despair, I quickly came to a conclusion. My frustration wasn’t helping anyone. It didn’t help me, and it certainly didn’t help my kids. In my professional life, I had established myself as executive coach who solved problems for businesses. I began to realize that I could draw on that experience. My first conclusion: my only option was to deal with their autism diagnosis head on. I had to get to work.
It’s been 16 years since that day, and I am the proud parent of three 18-year-old young adults who are healthy and, most importantly, happy. In fact, our lives together as a family have brought me joy and fulfillment I would have never imagined before. It may not be a path I would have chosen, but it has made me a better executive coach and a better person.
Let me share some of the lessons I’ve learned that could help you in your career.
My daughter Savannah went through a stage of refusing to eat anything besides French fries. Obviously, this was something that we had to work on.
For months, we would not let her eat French fries unless she ate something new. We would sit with her, her mouth bulging with vegetables, until she swallowed. After several weeks, she realized that we were as stubborn as she was, and she began to accept it. Nowadays, Savannah is as happy eating a salad as she is eating pizza.
When faced with a challenge, keep at it. Persistence often pays dividends.
As all parents of autistic children know, much of your time is spent keeping them safe and stopping them from doing something dangerous or inappropriate. Yet with our son Ethan, using obvious directives like, “Don’t do that,” or, “Stop it,” would often lead to an emotional meltdown because he perceived such words as angry or scolding. It would take time to calm him down.
Instead, we learned to use words like, “Ethan, come here,” or, “Let’s try this instead,” to redirect him, which would have the intended affect while keeping him in a positive mindset. These days, he radiates positivity. It’s wonderful to see him nearly burst with pride whenever he finishes a jigsaw puzzle or solves a problem.
It’s the same in business. People tend to respond to negative interactions negatively. If you can focus on keeping things positive, you’ll be surprised at the reactions you get.
I’ve learned that I will never fully understand how autism impacts my kids. While it might seem odd for Savannah to plug her ears in a room that seems perfectly quiet, I know that it’s something that soothes her. Trying to make her stop only helps me, not her.
Instead of getting her to unplug her ears, we’ve found that playing music through her headphones often helps. Her favorite music? The Beatles – just like her dad!
In business, work on what really matters. If something can’t be changed, move on. There will always be another challenge.
As a mother of triplets, I always refer back to the flight attendant’s instructions: if the oxygen masks deploy, make sure to put yours on first before attending to others.
It makes no sense to work yourself to exhaustion if it keeps you from attending to your responsibilities, whether in work or parenthood. You need to be at your best. Make sure to take the time to rest, recharge, and appreciate small victories in life.
For example, when Ethan was 17, he said to me, “My tummy hurts!” I was thrilled, because until then he had never been able to tell me when he was sick. Life rewards you, sometimes in mysterious ways.
I find joyful moments every day with my kids. Those triumphs are there for you too, no matter your personal or professional challenges – if you look for them.
I have a challenging, fulfilling career as an executive coach that requires travel all over the world. I built this career while raising triplets – two of whom are autistic. I could not have done it without my husband and my son, Tyler. I also have a skilled team of teachers, therapists and education advocates.
Business leaders also need strong teams. You are only as good as your team, so invest the time and resources to get the right people around you.
My training as an executive coach turned out to be a surprising asset in raising two special needs kids. At the same time, my children have taught me more than any university could about executive coaching, business and life.
For that I am grateful.