How My Special Needs Daughter Made Me a Better Professional

Tania Velazquez

October 23, 2017

All my life, I have been a planner. I love to check things off my “to do” list. I plan out six items a day (a reasonable goal) and everything after that is a bonus. I have always done all six items; that is, until I had my first child. My daughter was born in 2008. She was a beautiful baby and I never realized I could love anything so much until I had her. She amazed me everyday from the simplest things, and at night, I would sit and rock her to sleep, dreaming about everything we were going to do together. I would stare at her sleeping, amazed that she was mine.

Same as all children, she had all the necessary developmental milestones. She smiled, rolled over, walked, and, before I knew it, ran around the house. She was checking off her “to do list”.  At 18 months old, however, she still had not said a word, waved hello, or found interest in other children. Everyone told me she was on her own schedule, but I could not accept that. I knew something was wrong.

She was officially diagnosed with Autism at 22 months. As you can imagine, it was devastating news to hear the words “the official diagnosis is Autism.” My mind immediately raced and ran through all the milestones that I thought she was going to miss out on. I would call her name in the car, wanting her to look at me, but she was in her own world. I would go from calling to eventually yelling, but she wasn’t deaf; she was Autistic.

It has been a long road. But as with everything I do, I made a plan. My husband and I put together a team of therapists that came to the house. We were involved in social groups, speech groups, and parent’s groups. I would make my to do list every day and make sure I checked everything off. I thought by doing so it would be better and make me feel better.

During this time, I had been working as a counselor at a community college. I loved being a counselor. Professionally, I was happy. Going to work was often my outlet for the stress and pain I was experiencing. I felt that since I was happy professionally, I was going to focus all of my extra effort on helping my child. I put my all into my daughter’s therapies. I researched, was an active participant, and was 100% committed --- I simply became her biggest advocate.

As the years went by, however, I found myself wanting more from my job. I was restless. I had been offered opportunities for promotion but always turned them down because I wanted to commit to being the best “special needs mom” I could be.  Then, I eventually decided to take a chance on an opportunity to be a College Director.

After completing my first year in administration, I realized I had been holding myself back professionally because I wanted to dedicate my time to my family. I never realized that I was actually preparing for the biggest professional transition all along. My daughter's needs were preparing me for the next chapter in my life. For me, this was transitioning into student affairs administration.  Here are a couple of examples:

Motherhood and Data Collection/Assessment

I never realized how important this was when I was trying to move my daughter out of a life skills program to a degree track and had to demonstrate that she could do the school work and maintain the skills. It took months of data collection and assessments. I couldn’t just go by my feelings as her mother. I had to convince the educators that my daughter could do the work and would continually progress.

Due to my data collection and assessment, I had the proof I needed when teachers felt she could not do the work. When teachers doubted her skills, I was able to prove that they were wrong, so much so that she has never received below a 90% in her spelling and math tests. But they would not have known if I had not made them assess the data, which proved that she was able to retain her skills and move forward.

At a time where budgets are being cut, the importance of keeping good data is bigger than ever. We all know that data collection and assessment is what Student Affairs is all about now. We cannot add services to our offices without showing proof that it is truly needed; that is one of the first things I focused on in my new position. I realized that not only was the data collection process not reliable, but also the wrong components were being assessed. This helped me create goals and action plans for our offices. To prove the worth of the office and why services are needed, data collection needs to be done and motherhood prepared me for that

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! - Dr. Seuss

I read this book to my daughter every night. It was given to me as a graduation gift and my daughter loved it. It meant so much to me because of the dreams I had for her. When we received her diagnosis, I struggled with depression and stopped reading it to her. Many special needs parents fall into a depression initially and stay to themselves. Going out is a struggle for many reasons. It may be due to the child’s behaviors, not wanting to explain to others, or just exhaustion. Ultimately, it leads to loneliness.

I found myself doing the same professionally. I stayed to myself. I was not very involved at work. I never attended social functions, holiday parties, office parties; and please don’t ask me to happy hour!

As the years went on, I realized that to educate my daughter on going out and learning the social etiquette, I had to take her out. We had many meltdowns in public and were put in situations that I laugh about now, but at the time, I would cry in private from the embarrassment. But it got easier the more we did it. Not only did she learn decorum but we were educating the community about Autism.  Within our community, people got to know my daughter and that led to other opportunities for her to socialize and blossom.

At that time, I started letting down my guard at work. My colleagues and students got to know the other side of me. I felt more comfortable sharing my thoughts and opinions, which led to opportunities to work on committees. I got to know faculty and staff which led to more opportunities. In my current position, I attend many social functions. And to be honest, I never realized how much work can be done over a glass of wine and cocktail hour.

Creating My Support Network (My Village)

I have found that no matter how many friends I have, there is a special place in my life for my special needs parents. Most cannot understand the intensity of the pain and the amount of joy you experience unless you have a special needs child. Those times when you need to cry, laugh at a situation, confirm or deny when you feel “off”, special needs parents are the ones I tend to turn to. With them, I let it all out, share my personal war stories and, as a result, am able to go back onto the rollercoaster of parenting.

Interestingly enough, I have found the same with working in Student Affairs. The same emotions I have felt with parenting I have felt in my work with students, especially needing to build my “village.” I have a group of individuals I have dinner with. It is a safe space where we can laugh at situations, bounce ideas off of each other and then return to work, feeling refreshed.  I have individuals I feel comfortable enough with to talk about more serious situations and feel safe bouncing my ideas off of them. It helps me keep a positive attitude and not drain my energy.

Committee Work (The Right Committees)

I am now a member of the Special Education PTA (SEPTA). I never imagined myself as a PTA mom, but it is needed! Being a part of SEPTA gives me face time with administrators and chairs of the individual educational plan meetings; basically, those that make choices about my daughter’s education. This allows me to learn the ins and outs of what is going on in the schools. It is also much harder to say no to a mother that is volunteering for the school district.

This is really similar with work. As we all know, you can spread yourself out too thin. Student Affairs tends to have the same people on committees.  I have reached a point in my career, however, where I usually get to choose which committees I want to volunteer for. Yes, there are some obligatory committees, but when I participate in those meetings, I think hard about the benefits of being on each one. I want to know who I am going to have face time with, because I have learned if administrators see your loyalty to your job and responsibilities, the benefits are immeasurable. Additionally, I always want to ensure that my participation is going to help students.


This is probably the most important thing I have learned. My daughter has taught me that I may not be able to check off my “to do” list everyday. She has taught me to celebrate the small things. My husband and I cried throughout the whole movie, “Frozen,” (the sing along version) because we were in a movie theatre with both of our daughters and were able to stay the whole time and hear our daughters sing together after years of wanting to hear her voice.

Similarly, I have learned in Student Affairs that patience is vital. Often our systems are slow. You may not know if you are making an impact on a student or a system for years, and sometimes never. But you keep on going because you are passionate and love the work you do. If you have the patience, you are able to make an impact on an individual or a system that can have an effect for years. And it is so worth it.

Final Thoughts

It is interesting that as a special needs mom there is an intersection between motherhood and navigating my career. As my daughter is blossoming, I am as well. As she grows, she has taught me to think outside of the box in all aspects of my life and realize that life is not only about checking off my “to do” list.

The best advice I have received is to throw out my “to do” list. In Student Affairs, you may never get to every item on your “to do” list, but you are making an impact.

As women, we are equipped to handle many situations. I feel regardless of whether you have children or not, “you are only the sum of your experiences.” We need to take from those experiences and look to how they are preparing us for the future.

Tenia Velazquez is the College Director for Suffolk County Community College.

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