Advancing Against the Odds

Robyn Ashinhurst was just 23 when her two-year-old daughter, Audrey, was diagnosed with autism, and with that one, little, six-letter word everything changed.

“When you receive a diagnosis like autism, you have to go through a grieving process, not unlike the death and dying grieving process,” said Ashinhurst. “As a mother feels her child growing inside of her, she dreams of who her child will be, who she will be, and the milestones and memories to come.

“You have to grieve over what might have been,” explained Ashinhurst. “Denial -- Nothing is wrong. Anger -- Why my baby? Guilt -- What did I do to cause this? Bargaining -- I can find something to cure her! Depression -- She’s never going to be normal. And finally, Acceptance -- She is who she is going to be, and that is that!”

So, with her dreams of motherhood and parenting forever altered, Ashinhurst set herself to the task of raising her daughter. As a young, single mother most of Ashinhurst’s time and focus were spent on Audrey.

“Autism makes a person process their environment differently. Some are miserable and cannot handle it,” said Ashinhurst. “I know it sounds strange, but I am lucky. Audrey sometimes gets frustrated, but for the most part, she is happy. She isn’t able to verbalize as other children, but those of us who know her, can most of the time, figure out what she is wanting or trying to say. She is beautiful, funny, loving and affectionate. She laughs, she smiles, and she plays and engages with her family, friends and teachers.”

As time went by, mother and daughter built a good life together, but something was missing. Ashinhurst worked as an LPN for almost 10 years before she decided to go back to school and get her associate degree in nursing. Ashinhurst was a nurse, but she wanted to be more.

“I always planned to go back and get higher than a technical degree, but sometimes life gets in the way. Or in my case, you get comfortable and in a rut,” said Ashinhurst. “Before I started at TCC, I worked only weekends. During the week, I would get up, get my daughter off to school, and either go back to sleep, watch TV, or play mind numbing games on my computer. After several months of this, one day I just said to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ I realized I was wasting time only being part of what I really wanted to be.”

The next day, Ashinhurst called her best friend and asked her if she would go with her to TCC and check it out. The day after that, both women headed to TCC. They took their placement tests and enrolled in nine credit hours. Now, 18 months later and being the first in her family to earn a degree, Ashinhurst knows TCC was the right choice for her. She found the class offerings flexible and was able to customize her classes around her work and her daughter’s schedule.

“I have taken day, evening, weekend, online, week-long, four-week, eight-week, 16-week, summer andintersession classes,” explained Ashinhurst. “It seemed like I could see what days I was available and THEN I would look up classes, and could always find what I needed, when I needed them to be.”

Ashinhurst is proud of her success. Being a perfectionist, Ashinhurst placed a lot of pressure upon herself to make good grades. She didn’t want to just pass the class; she wanted the best grade in the class. This kind of commitment to school work while mothering a child with autism, holding down a job and managing a household can be overwhelming.

“A child with special needs can be demanding; and they don’t understand, ‘mommy needs to study,’ ” saidAshinhurst. “Luckily, I have a very supportive mother willing to watch my daughter any time. My mom was there for me whenever I needed her. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Assistance has come from others as well. In addition to friends and family lending a hand, Ashinhurst, who works as the weekend, on-call LPN for New Century Hospice, credits her boss with helping her achieve her career goals.

“I have worked at the same place for over four years,” explained Ashinhurst. “My boss has been amazingly supportive throughout my journey.”

Ashinhurst has learned quickly that the best way to overcome challenges is to have a plan and to be organized. A self-proclaimed overachiever, Ashinhurst works well under pressure, which is a good thing because she hopes to work in the emergency room someday.

“I love the variety and the experiences that go with working in the ER,” said Ashinhurst.

In pursuit of this career goal, Ashinhurst is currently in the LPN-BSN Career Mobility course at the University of Oklahoma. She will graduate next May with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing. In addition, Ashinhurst is thinking of further continuing her education and obtaining her Nurse Practitioner’s License.

Even with all the demands of mothering a special-needs child, working and attending nursing school, Ashinhurst still finds time to enrich her life and the lives of others. She has taken several Spanish courses and participated in a nine-day, study abroad trip to Nicaragua withTCC’s nursing students, where she became enamored with the people and the culture.

“I felt so lucky to be able to combine my love of nursing and Spanish,” said Ashinhurst. “It was awesome!”

Ashinhurst advises other parents thinking of continuing their education to just do it.

“If you wait for the ‘right’ time, it’s never going to come. The hardest part is to start. It has gone by so fast and I can’t believe how much I have accomplished,” said Ashinhurst.  

She offers a few last words of encouragement, “Just go take one class. One class isn’t too scary.”

Author’s Note: Autism Spectrum Disorder affects approximately one in 88 American children. That works out to about two million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. According to autismspeaks.org, autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. They include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances.

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