Autism, Parenting And Our Pets


Anti-psychotics and dog vomit. I know, not the most appealing combination, these two things. But sometimes, life throws at you an ugly mess of stuff, and you have no real choice but to deal with it.

Just last week, we found ourselves in what seemed a perfect storm of messiness. Our son, who is autistic, very occasionally (thankfully!) gets really, really stuck on something. It’s like he climbs onto a ledge, works himself into a state, and can’t be talked down.

One of the first times this happened, I told my husband to call his psychiatrist. Dr. B. was solely a prescription provider, not a talk therapist, but he was the only mental health-related practitioner in our world, so I thought he could help. I was shocked and hopeful when Len reached him on the first try. We told him that Noah was in a state, and that we were concerned for his safety (and secondarily for ours). “Take him to the E.R.” advised Dr. B.

I told my husband that I would not do that, because I expected that Noah would be physically restrained and given forced doses of some sort of sedative. I would not traumatize my child that way.

I realized in that moment that we were on our own. That all the doctors in our orbit—however fancy their credentials and however serious their “expertise”—had nothing to offer in a real crisis. Or at least this one doctor didn’t. So we struggled on our own and finally, Noah calmed down.

Some time later, I found myself at an appointment with Noah and his seizure doctor. We were chatting about Noah’s behavior, sleep habits, etc., and I told Dr. P. the story of what had happened with Noah and Dr. B.’s suggestion. Dr. P. was appalled that Dr. B. had offered us nothing that would actually help us in that moment. So he approached a colleague of his to write us a prescription for medication to be used in case of emergency. And that little bottle has saved us on at least three occasions now, one of them quite recent.

It is heartbreaking to realize that when you need a lifeline, someone instead throws you the rough equivalent of a pack of lifesavers. I have known for as long as I’ve been a sentient being how absolutely flawed our mental health system is. There are quacks-a-plenty who hang out shingles and in my opinion, have nothing much to offer vulnerable families. There are of course the other folks—the dedicated and skilled practitioners. No, they cannot wave a magic wand and make your struggles go away, but they try to help, they offer something other than meaningless advice, or blaming the patient.

It is beyond exhausting to cope with a constellation of issues that encompass physical and mental health. Some days, drowning seems too gentle a description of how I feel. But when I get a little too far into that dark hole, I’m reminded that life is not only about the struggles of this one child. It is far more multi-faceted than that. It encompasses joy and laughter and sadness and anger. And other kids. Raising them, at least for me, is the hardest work imaginable. And if I’m honest, it’s not work I always love. Sometimes, I flat-out resent it. But there it is. I can’t—and wouldn’t—wish it away. In fact, in my cockeyed universe, I just add more to the chaotic mix, somehow thinking that might make things more manageable. Or maybe just thinking that if you reach a certain level of chaos, adding more to the mix is unlikely to tip the scales any further.

So to my three human children, I’ve added two rescue dogs. Why? Well the short answer is because a dishonest former neighbor killed our cat, Snappy, blaming her death on some mysterious “other driver.” We channeled our grief—after an appropriate period of mourning–into new lives to love. And there is something entirely, thoroughly wonderful about the fact that our two rescue dogs—Winnie and Ollie–couldn’t care less about my stress level with my human children. They’ll bark and climb and play and sleep however, wherever, and whenever they want. They’ll plant themselves in our laps and in our beds, seeing no boundaries between us and them. And just like our human children, they’ll expect us to clean up after them. Because they won’t clean up their own vomit, now will they?

So we find ourselves at times surrounded, embraced, suffocated, flooded, and overwhelmed by the needs of all of our children—human and canine. But in return, we get the most precious commodity of all: love. Sometimes, getting to love is exhausting—even scary. But arriving at that destination is always, always, always worth the journey.

Nina Mogilnik’s professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina serves on the board of Birch Family Services, an organization dedicated to educating and supporting into adulthood individuals with a range of developmental disabilities. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week.  She was recently invited to blog for The Times of Israel and has been contributing her take on life and current events.  Nina’s proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids (human and canine) in New York City.