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Part 1: A Journey of Discovery and Reflection

Hello, my name is George. If you're reading this, you likely know Joanna, who leads Imagine That Therapy, an ABA and speech therapy clinic. Joanna is not only my wife and lifelong partner but also the mother of our delightful daughter, Zoe, a vibrant and cheeky 6-year-old. Zoe, our little monkey child, happens to be autistic.

Gratitude is a sentiment that has evolved in me over time, but it wasn't always present. I've grappled with anxiety and depression tendencies, especially since Zoe's diagnosis four years ago. The journey since then has been tumultuous, nearly tearing our family apart. This narrative recounts the moment I discovered Zoe's autism and the insights I wish I had possessed back then. Truthfully, these lessons required firsthand experience for full comprehension. I share them with you in the hope that they may offer solace or guidance.

An Unexpected Revelation

It was February 24th, 2018. Zoe had just entered our lives, and I found myself in a whirlwind of new responsibilities and emotions. The realization hit me: I'm a father now? Does this mean I'm the grown-up? Surreal. During a conversation with my visiting mother from Greece, I blurted out a thought: "Thank goodness she's healthy—hands, feet, toes—all there. Now, if only she isn't autistic, we're in the clear." There was no logical reason for this remark. Autism didn't run in our families, and I had no prior encounters with it.

A Stirring Concern

Fast forward to mid-December 2019 in bustling Midtown Manhattan. Over dinner with my work colleagues, the topic of family and holiday plans arose. It struck me then—an underlying sense of unease regarding Zoe's development. For weeks, perhaps months, she hadn't been hitting her verbal milestones or engaging with us as usual. She seemed distant, slipping away from our grasp. For the first time, my gut instincts screamed at me.

Returning home, I confronted Joanna. I voiced my concerns about Zoe. She dismissed them, labeling me paranoid and negative, our disagreement escalating into heated arguments. The stress of uncertainty weighed heavily on us. Joanna, proactive as ever, rushed us to urgent care, entertaining the notion that Zoe's lack of response stemmed from hearing issues. The nurse found nothing amiss with Zoe's ears, leaving us puzzled. We scheduled appointments with the pediatrician and an ENT specialist, but they were six weeks away. Six more weeks of agonizing uncertainty ensued. Sleep eluded me; anxious thoughts consumed my mind. I resorted to sleep aids to find some semblance of rest.

A Lesson in Acceptance

Time passed, and anxiety reared its head. My sleep deteriorated, and I turned to marijuana, initially as a recreational escape from my demanding job, now unwittingly leaning on it as a crutch.

This should have been my wake-up call—the pivotal lesson Zoe taught me. The unknown is vast, and we're not clairvoyant. My mind, like perhaps yours, fills gaps in knowledge with dire scenarios. "What if Zoe has this? What if she faces challenges?" These hypotheticals led me down dark mental rabbit holes, preoccupying my days. None of my imagined futures included a global pandemic confining us for two years—clearly, I'm no psychic.

It took eighteen months of therapy, meditation, and extensive self-reflection to grasp this lesson. I hope I've internalized it. More importantly, I hope you can heed this advice without enduring the same trials.

Lesson #1: Illuminate the Present

If you suspect behavioral issues in your child, rule out physical causes first, like hearing problems or pain. Seek professional evaluation from specialists, such as children's behavioral psychologists.

When worry creeps in, acknowledge your limitations. You've taken necessary steps; trust in the process. Redirect your focus to the present moment. Picture your mind as a dark landscape, illuminated only by your attention—a flashlight. Control where you shine that light. Be mindful.

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