‘I boarded a plane in the early hours of the morning with nothing more than my 6-month-old and a duffel bag.’: Mom documents beautiful and enduring autism journey

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“I’ve received a lot of grief from various people for this photoshoot. Many people said his autism was irrelevant, or attention seeking. I’ve also received request after request to share the photos, some were willing to hear our story, others not so much. 

Young girl with autism stands in field in front of person in dinosaur costume
Roaming Magnolias Photography by Samantha Bishop

I’ve raised Levi alone, since he was 6-months-old. We have faced struggle after struggle. I was 18 when I had him and not prepared for anything life was about to throw at me. I left an unhealthy relationship and situation, in the middle of the night, and boarded a plane in the early hours of the morning with nothing more than my 6-month-old and a duffel bag. We were homeless for a good 8 months. Over the years we made it work. I found a solid career in emergency services and then the judicial system and put a great roof over his head. But we still struggled. Daycare was never easy when you have shift work with a rotating schedule. 

As the years progressed and he started preschool, I knew something was off. He was different. He struggled in a classroom, had extreme emotional outbursts and was regressing on a regular basis. As we went into kindergarten the issues intensified. I fought for diagnosis, for therapy, for a healthy school setting. I remember his kindergarten teacher telling me ‘he only acts this way because he doesn’t get his way’ while my son was in extreme emotional and mental distress. Mornings spent with him on the floor in a ball sobbing, begging not to be sent to school. Eventually psychologists stepped in and got the ball rolling. We tried several different schools, and their answers were always to limit his day. He wasn’t allowed to attend school or activities like other children, and still is very limited by the school system. 

These daily fights with the school and doctors left me unable to give focus to a career outside the home. So, I found photography. I fell in love and I’ve spent the last several years throwing my life and energy and tears into making it work. For years I struggled with his diagnosis, I resented it. I prayed for a normal day, a normal life. For T-ball games and birthday parties. For him to be able to have recess and PE, and art and music classes. I fell for the pressure of having an ‘Insta Perfect’ life and posting adorable photos of my child smiling happily and looking at the camera. It took coaxing, bribery, dancing like a fool and a whole lot of bathroom jokes. It was exhausting. Out of 5,000 photos I may have had 10 great ones. Eye contact was uncomfortable. Smiling or showing emotion on command was uncomfortable. And it was so hard to understand why this process of just a few good photos of my kid had to be so difficult. I was able to take great photos of everyone else’s kids with ease.

A few weeks ago, we hit a real rough patch in our lives. I was dealing with medical issues for several months and recovering from spine surgery, he was dealing with some emotional issues after the start of a new school year. I was ready to give up this gig. To find outside help or a new living situation for him. Someone who could really give him everything he needs. I reached out to programs and agencies, desperate for answers. As I was sitting there an emotional wreck, tears flooding my face, he sat down beside me, put his arms around me and told me it was all okay. He told me I was still a good person, a good mother. And that’s when I realized all he needed was to just be accepted and celebrated for who he is. To say I’m not writing this without sobbing would be a lie. I had failed as a mother. I had put so much energy into resenting what the doctors told me, that I never stopped to just love the brilliant, hilarious little human who was in front of me. And so, came the need for me to show just how amazing he really is in the only way I knew how. Photography. 

Lola, this 5-year-old girl right here is his best friend, his cousin, his sidekick. They have been inseparable for years. She loves him unconditionally. She loves him the way I wish everyone could love him. Both of them have always loved to dress up, but Levi especially. Every time he sees a new character, he is creating a new costume. From Ghostbusters, to police officers, chefs and lawyers. He spent a week in a top hat after watching The Greatest Showman. If he’s not in some sort of costume, he can almost always be found in a suit and tie. Clothing has always been an intense obsession with him, often crippling to his everyday life and functions. He will notice what someone is wearing and remember that before anything else. 

Young girl with autism is running in field away from dinosaur
Roaming Magnolias Photography by Samantha Bishop
Young girl with autism stands in field smiling at person in dinosaur costume
Roaming Magnolias Photography by Samantha Bishop

So, “While many people don’t see why his autism or other special needs have anything to do with this shoot, I think many will. This is him in his element.”There are no forced smiles, no bribery. His happiness is authentic. This is the goofy, hilarious, kindhearted boy I was given. Because of his special needs he has a near photographic memory, he is as blunt as they come, he can build anything, and he is hilarious and brilliant. And so, I choose to celebrate his ‘labels’ and teach him to use them to his advantage rather than see them as an ‘obstacle.’

Young girl with autism lies in field beside person in dinosaur costume
Roaming Magnolias Photography by Samantha Bishop

This story was submitted to Love What Matters Samantha Bishop of This Life With Levi.  Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best love stories here.

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