How Having a Differently-Wired Kid is Like Being in the Military

If you have served in the military . . . thank you.  And, I apologize for any mischaracterizations of military life that I might make in the next few paragraphs.  I have not served in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, Air Force, or Marines.  I have worked with several veterans in my therapy office, so I have some small glimmer of possible understanding by listening to the experiences these men and women have shared with me.  But, really, I have no idea what life in an armed service is like.  I do, however, know the ins and outs of the higher needs warfront quite intimately.

What got me thinking about this is that oft quoted stat that moms of autistic children have the same levels of stress as combat soldiers.  Our brains have been wired to be on high alert and to be living in a constant state of reactive fight or flight to the same degree as our service men and women.  And from what I’ve seen and experienced, our similarities don’t stop there.

Fringy Families live in a state of hypervigilance, as military personnel do.  I feel it in my own core and I see it on the faces and in the quick reactions of my husband and my sons.  We are on guard and ready to be called up to action at a moment’s notice.  We never know when the meltdown might be set off, but we’ll be ready when it does.

We know that combat soldiers experience trauma.  Life or death trauma.  I make no assumptions that I know what that is like.  But, I do know that us fringy families experience trauma, as well.  The shaking terror in my 4-year-old’s body when he sees “Red KBear” stomping down the hallway is the look of someone who’s been traumatized.  The feeling of shame and negative beliefs that my daughter will verbalize after a meltdown is the voice of trauma.  The physical aches and pains and auto-immune diseases is trauma stored deep in our cells.  Living in the chronic state of stress is traumatizing.

The military would not survive without clear direction and commitment to follow orders.  And I would say this is often the case with us, as well.  When all the shit has really hit the fan, my family knows who is in charge at that particular moment and will follow the orders.  If it is me, I have learned to embrace leadership and authoritarian direction to keep everyone safe.  Of course, my daughter isn’t capable of following orders at that moment, or I wouldn’t have to don the sergeant stripes, but the other troops fall directly into line.  The 4-year-old even knows that there is no questioning orders at those times of crisis.

We know that some returning soldiers have difficulty connecting with other people who haven’t experienced war.  They can connect on some things, but they understand that unless you’ve lived it, you can’t get it.  Us fringy families get that, too.  It can be very isolating when you know that most other families have no idea what your day to day life entails.

But, we also know that there is a camaraderie among veterans that is unparalleled.  I was at a Minnesota Orchestra concert in which they played a medley of all the US Armed Forces Songs.  The veterans stood when their song was played and I saw as they searched the crowds, locked eyes with each other, and could feel an instant understanding and connection.  Generations and distance separated them, but they were still connected.  It’s the same for fringy families.  Spot a family with a differently-wired kid having a meltdown in a store, and there’s a knowing look of solidarity that passes.  We know that not everyone understands our life, so when we find someone who does, we are bonded for eternity.  

And our families are bonded in a way that is unique, as well.  Similar to the loyalty, dedication, and unification I have witnessed among squads, flights, or platoons, there’s a deep connection within our family.  I had a co-worker tell me once that she even envied the closeness she sees in families of special needs kids.  She said there’s often a bond and sense of teamwork that reaches a different level than with other families not facing the same circumstances.

And, ya know, some of us enlisted in this life, and some of us were unwillingly drafted.  But, either way, we’re here.  And we may suffer the often thankless job, unfortunately, like many of our military men and women, but we still show up.  Day after day, we’re showing up at the front line and trying to fight for something that’s bigger than ourselves.