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There are so many things we admire about blogger and lifestyle guru Kendall Rayburn. But if we had to pick just one, it would be her relentless optimism. She is #parentinggoals not in spite of the fact that her son Wyatt, six, faces challenges, but because of how they rise to meet them together. “Wyatt is a perfectly sweet, tender, and loving little boy who just happens to have autism,” she says. “He is brave, he is strong, and he is my hero. Being his mom has made me stronger, it’s made me smarter, and it’s made me a better person.” Here, some of her wisest words.

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Your child’s ‘worst’ is still the best

Young kids will challenge us. It may even seem like they choose the moments when we are at our weakest and most exhausted to test limits or simply refuse to go the f!#@ to sleep. But when their reason for, say, delaying bedtime is wanting just one more moment of connection with us, Rayburn offers a much-needed reminder to be grateful, not grumpy. “Love will always pull us through the hard times,” she says. “Wyatt is the most affectionate, sweet, loving child. If you’re sad, he’s there to hug you. When his brother falls to the ground, he’s always the first one to help him up. He even hugs the principal at his school when he sees her, he is just that loving. And after the appointment when his doctor confirmed that our suspicions were right, that something wasn’t right [Wyatt was diagnosed with autism], and I felt like melting to the floor, he was there. At 18 months old, he was there for me. His love will always be my reason for fighting to get him everything he needs, and then some.”

You do you

When we look back on our kids’ childhoods, will the highlight reel include the self-conscious guilt we felt about letting our three-year-old (still) use a pacifier out in public? Will we remember feeling judged by the plumber when we plopped our kindergartner in front of a screen so we could have a coherent conversation (Yes, we know not to put wipes, Legos and banana clips down the toilet. No, we’re not sure who missed the memo…)? Rayburn focuses on her family’s needs—and lets the rest fade. “Social situations are sometimes a little overwhelming for Wyatt, which is why we have to have ‘back-up’ items,” she says. “Fidget toys, his chewie, a charged iPad, milk, the works, because we never know what we’ll need, should a situation arise.” And inevitably, it will—for all of us. “If your little one has a sensory meltdown in the middle of the grocery store and you can literally FEEL the eyes on your back, brush it off,” she says. “You are doing the best you can, you cannot prevent meltdowns, but you can calmly leave the store and change things up. Letting go of the idea of perfection has been something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and being flexible [enough] to change the direction—a skill Wyatt has taught me—has been wonderful.”

Set kids up for success

Little people are not always spontaneous, despite their impulsive decisions to drop trou in restaurants. Truly, they usually do best when they know what’s coming next. Going on a work trip? Tell kids in advance where you are going and when you’ll be back (visual aids like maps and calendars may help). Explain what you expect of them behaviorally on a playdate (“We will not hit. We will clean up before we leave…”). Rayburn lays out for Wyatt whatever “First/Then” scenario lies ahead. After a tantrum at his first appointment for speech therapy, for example, “I consulted with friends and his teacher at school, and we came up with a plan for the next visit. We’d use a First/Then card,” she explains. “The First thing was speech, and the Then thing was his iPad. His teacher went over it with him at school, and when I picked him up to take him to speech, he already knew that after his appointment, he’d be able to have something he really enjoys. And guess what? That next visit went great!”

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Love your kids for who they are, not who you hoped they would be

“Instead of wasting time trying to change who your child is, who is standing right in front of you, how about we celebrate exactly who they are and everything that makes them special?” Rayburn says. “Being the parent of a child with autism will mean you will have to give up a lot. It means you’ll probably never want to leave your child because no one can love them and care for them quite like you. It will mean struggling internally with your mom guilt about leaving the house for a few hours so you can have some time to yourself. It will mean taking on a lot, and it will surely dwindle your friends list down to those who truly love you. But what the experience will give back to you, the way your heart will grow and expand, I can’t even begin to put that into words. I can’t begin to tell you how your life will change for the good. How you’ll grow as a mother or father, how you’ll love more than you ever knew you could.” Whether you have a child with autism, are in the discovery process of a diagnosis or facing other parenting challenges, hear this: “Look for the light. Look for the positive, wherever it is in your life, and chase it. And if you can’t find it, keep trying. I promise you, it’s there. Every single day, keep striving to find that light, even when the days are hard.”

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