It takes a neighborhood.
Olivia’s son Otto was barely 2 years old when she realized he was different. His eventual diagnosis — severe autism — was a surprising relief.
Growing up with an autistic brother, Olivia was already familiar with the spectrum, as well as how it affects the lives of people on it and those who care about them.
Her young son would have challenges expressing himself verbally; he'd have learning difficulties and complicated emotions. She knew that in the same way her son saw the world a little bit differently, she and her family would need to do the same. On top of her job at Hallmark and her already busy life, she and her family had to create space for understanding Otto's special needs while ensuring that those of their other two children — and their own — would be met.
If that sounds like a pretty tough balancing act, it is. It's also not out of the ordinary for parents of kids with special needs.
Fortunately, Olivia and her family have a caring community to help them along. Three years after Otto’s diagnosis, they're all thriving.
“You’ve probably heard the expression, 'It takes a village.' ... We live that every day with our family," says Olivia.
"Our neighbors know that if they see Otto running down the street, he shouldn’t be and where to return him," she adds. "They will come over with a meal when it’s been a really rough week. They’ll take my other kids out for pizza or for a sleepover, just to give them kind of a sense of normalcy or just to give us a break. It’s those really specific acts of kindness that resonate with us every time, really.”
When large gatherings happen, their friends make sure Otto's special needs are accommodated. For example, they’ll make sure the barbecue doesn’t have open flames, or they’ll create a special quiet place where Otto can find peace if he’s overstimulated. For parents like Olivia, who base their decisions on which events to attend on how their children could potentially react to them, these small kindnesses make a huge difference.
Having a community to lean on is a huge asset. But when support from others isn’t enough, Olivia has learned to take time for herself, too.
“Especially as women, we’re warrior moms or constantly advocating ... and that’s where we spend a lot of time getting our affirmation,” she says. “But that really can get exhaustive. I mean, I’ve been on this path for five years now, and it’s taken me close to that amount of time to realize that that’s not where I’m going to recharge. I’m going to be a better mom, I’m going to be a better wife, I’m going to be a better employee if I get out of the house for a little bit.”
At the moment, Olivia recharges with the help of exercise classes that she takes five times a week. She credits the experience with changing her life and helping her find control, especially when the rest of her day is chaotic and unpredictable.
“I make it count because I know that as soon as I leave that gym that I’m going home to a bunch of stuff that I can’t control. How many pushups I can do in an hour? That’s something I can control.”
In her nine years as a parent, Olivia has learned a lot about care. She's seen how even tiny amounts of it can change lives, even her own.
"There are so many ways to show someone that you care," she says. "It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, it doesn’t have to be something that you purchase or just the right words at the right time. It’s just being there and being genuine and letting that person know that they matter to you."
Listen to Olivia speak about how caring gestures have changed her life in this short video: