She crossed the stage with a posture and pace that said everything I needed to know, sitting near the back of the packed auditorium. She was ready to move on.

My daughter was now, officially, a high school graduate. Confident. Self-aware. Accomplished. Courageous. Amazing. And I wasn’t shy to cheer, because she’s my girl and if anyone deserved applause for thriving in high school, it’s her. She would walk off stage with a high skills major diploma and an award for her kindness in the school. Autism didn’t hold her back. It pushed her forward.

I’ve never been shy about my daughter’s autism diagnosis (with her permission, of course). It was a diagnosis that didn’t come until the end of Grade 8. A late diagnosis happens often with young girls. The reason? Little girls with learning challenges rarely act out. They don’t want the attention, they just want to be liked. They fall between the cracks of a system that overlooks them.

For 14 years, she was misdiagnosed with a list of prognoses that, it turns out, were all wrong. Imagine a childhood of working so hard to fit in that you fool most people around you every day. It’s a life skill of resilience.

Now, imagine the guilt of being the parent of that little girl when you realize you missed the signs.

The label of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is complicated, but I have never been so distraught and relieved at the same time. Distraught, because the word “disorder” comes with a stigma that she’ll spend the rest of her life fighting against, because the ignorance of others will be her greatest obstacles. But I was relieved because knowledge is power, and understanding breeds compassion. I’ve learned a lot about compassion as a parent. I’ve also learned a great deal about letting go. The most amazing thing to witness in my daughter over four years of high school is the blooming of her self-awareness. She needs guidance, not guarding.

This is where good teachers come in. The right teacher can make all the difference. My daughter was blessed to have several that made high school not just a positive experience, but an amazing four years of growth and development. They taught her to hone her talents, play to her strengths and not quit on the subjects that were hard. Also key, they taught her to self-advocate. To speak up/out. To find her voice. This is key for all girls, not just girls with ASD.  They believed in her so she would believe in herself. There are many I could thank, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her incredible drama teacher, Jenny Ritter, for being everything a teacher should be, and so much more. Arts education matters. This is where my daughter fit. I’m forever grateful.

You can’t tell a young person that time passes fast, especially when they are about to walk into their first day of high school. Four years goes by in a flash of homework, theatre productions, friendships and experiences that you’ll laugh about later.

But you can hope they walk across that graduation stage feeling capable, accomplished and confident that the next steps are theirs to take. For my girl, autism has been her super power. I can’t wait for the world to realize it too.

WriteOut of Her Mind