From Heartache to Hope: Interview with Leisa Hammett of the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

From Heartache to HopeThe personal stories of families and individuals affected by autism in the beautifully photographed book, From Heartache to Hope: Middle Tennessee Families Living with Autism by Leisa A. Hammett, were an amazing read.

The book follows 18 families in how they have struggled with one or more family members receiving a diagnosis of autism and how they moved literally from heartache to hope — with the parenting support offered by their local Autism Society of Middle Tennessee, USA. This book illustrates the vital importance of unconditional attachment between parent and child in a circumstance where autism exists.

Leisa, a mother of a child on the autism spectrum, offers more insight into why this book came to be.

RITA: How did you first became interested in helping other parents of children with autism?

LEISA: I’ve always been a flag waver — guess I was born with one flapping in my hand. And then, after serving as a social justice reporter covering poverty, homelessness, addiction, etc., I was moved to use my life, my faith, my gifts, what I possessed, to work for change. That time in my life, my mid-20s, was catalytic. So, in many ways, it’s a bit ironic that I ended up being the type person with circumstances and challenges about whom I used to write. Also, ironically, I’d finished up a volunteer stint as my local La Leche League chapter’s librarian and had promised to do the same for Attachment Parenting International in Nashville, where I live.

But that’s when the “A bomb” dropped. Resources, time, and energy, of course, had to be redirected.

Then, I was asked early on by the executive director of the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee (ASMT), our local autism support organization, to volunteer. I first told her it was too soon. She quickly retorted: No, it’s not! Within months, I was a regular and key volunteer for the organization and have been for 13 years.

I can remember well the day I lobbied a local autism leader about some of our autism community needs. I was walking down the sidewalk alongside Vanderbilt University after our meeting, and it dawned on me: All my life – my familial upbringing, my spirituality, my personal growth, my education, and my career – had prepared me to be right here, right now. I would become my daughter’s chief advocate. So, I’ve always ventured to serve her in such a capacity and leave a wake for other families. I am blessed to be able to use a composite of my creative skills to advocate for her and others.

RITA: Tell us about ASMT and how this organization benefits families.

LEISA: From the website, www.tnautism.org: Monthly workshops, orientations, annual conferences, support groups, referrals to local resources, phone support, educational and legislative advocacy, public awareness opportunities and trainings, and an active involvement in the larger disability community are just some of the many ways we are serving the Middle Tennessee autism community. As an active member of the chapter network of the Autism Society of America, our reach extends far beyond Middle Tennessee, and we are constantly learning, growing, and expanding the ways we work to meet and exceed expectations. Whether through advocacy, education, or support, our mission is simple: improving the lives of all affected by autism.

RITA: What led you to write the book, and how do you hope for this book to help others?

LEISA: I saw a small paperbound book and corresponding traveling photo exhibit that a local writer and a British photographer collaborated upon ten years ago. It featured families living with disability throughout our state. I’d actually forgotten that it was an inspiration to me in this regard until the mention of it was made recently.

Also, I attended a national autism conference in the far end of the country in 2004, which was the year Souls: Beneath and Beyond Autism premiered in video and in book form. It’s written by a similar collaborative team but the thematic and visual approach is quite different. But that’s what cemented the idea that I’d like to do this locally.

Two years passed and I became a writer and associate editor for NashvilleArts Magazine. Then yet another two years passed and I began searching for a photographer among the many talented ones I met at the magazine. No takers. Then I met Rebekah Pope through the Littlest Heroes Project, www.littlestheroesproject.org. She photographed me and my daughter through that program, which matches professional photographers who donate their time and some photographic services to special-needs families.

Nearly four months passed before I thought to approach Rebekah. I contacted her in December with the idea and we agreed to meet in early January – and we had a book at the printer by September! Rebekah has a young cousin with autism, and we were joined by my friend, a very talented graphic designer, Mary Sweeney, also a mother of a child with autism – plus the grandfather of a child on the spectrum, Tim Fields of Fields Publishing, Inc. Collectively, we donated $100,000 of creative billable hours toward the book, which benefits ASMT in full.

RITA: What tips do you have for families affected by autism, in particular the parents who practice Attachment Parenting (AP)?

LEISA: Having an Attachment Parenting foundation will be an asset in a family’s autism journey, because this gentle approach is all about nurturing your maternal and parental instinct. I carried that ability to listen to my gut when it yelled: “This does not feel right for me and my child!” (Even when it might be the method du jour!) I would like to think that AP helps nurture the kind of parent who loves their child because she or he is their child, despite the fact that she or he has autism. She or he is a person first — the same child before she or he was diagnosed with autism.

  • Find it in your heart and spirit to look for the good in this situation. There is plenty of it. Start by counting your blessings. Find five things each day for which to be grateful. It may start out with your morning latte, or the daffodils poking their perky yellow heads from the ground. And then it will probably branch into gratitude for those who choose to work with your children. If you look, if you are open, your heart’s well will overflow with a buoyant sense of gratitude that will serve well your mental, emotional, and physical health. You will need it.
  • Allow yourself to grieve for the child that you thought you had. Then embrace the child you do have.
  • Keep your expectations for him or her high. I love the lines in From Heartache to Hope about a family whose son’s name is Harrison. The mother proclaims at the end of their family’s story: “I just want him to be the best Harrison he can be.” What a beautiful way of acknowledging one’s differences yet striving for personal best.
  • Have a life outside of autism. My Attachment Parenting friends continued to embrace me in the early, tumultuous years of early intervention. Those who have not moved away are still friends today. I need their support as much as I need that of my special-needs parenting peers.
  • Be your child’s best advocate. Be there. Stand up. Get knowledgeable on best practices. Then, pick your battles! And, remember: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
  • Know that life happens for a reason. And your child is yours for a reason. And you are hers or his parent for a reason.
  • Steady and seal your foundation, and fill your well. You’re no good for the long-term traveling of this rocky path unless you’ve first taken care of you. Do what it takes. My regimens include meditation, yoga, journaling, a spiritual connection, a supportive social network and loving relationships, good whole food nutrition, and walking outdoors in nature. Sometimes, it may be five minutes once a week, but things start unraveling and going all wobbly when I don’t do what secures my personal foundation and fills my own well. Your child and your life will seriously bang and dent that foundation and drain that well otherwise!

RITA: Thank you, Leisa, for those wonderful tips! Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

LEISA: From Heartache to Hope gave me the gift of capturing a unified sense of the autism puzzle. Each family brought to us a piece of that enigmatic, symbolic piece of the autism picture, whether it’s the struggles of siblings, challenges to marriage, school and other systems, or medical issues. But in the end, each family’s story is also one of hope. This is not a hopeless journey!

And that is a theme of my writing and speaking and how I live my life: to be a messenger that no matter what your journey – autism, divorce, job loss, cancer, add to the list – there is goodness, joy, blessings, and hope in this life. The prism of this book is autism. In autism, there is much hardship – and also much hope.

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