When you first hear the word autism in relation to your child your mind for the briefest of seconds goes blank. Then, if you’re me, it fills with images of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” flapping his hands, yelling “Ten minutes to Wapner!” And denial starts.
He was three years old. We were at my mother-in-law’s house to celebrate a birthday. Uncles, aunts, cousins jockeyed for position around the oval table oohing and aahing over the flickering candles of a chocolate frosted treat. Before the first bars of “Happy Birthday to You” finished, my child began screaming, crying, holding his ears as if the melody was trying to assault his brain. It wasn’t the first time and two more years would pass before he could sit and not only listen, but, sing along.
I hurried my son out of the kitchen away from the big-bad-boogie song. My sister-in-law, a speech pathologist, followed us. She mentioned a conference she had attended to inform professionals of signs of high-functioning autism; known as Asperger’s Syndrome. (In 1997, the medical community was finally getting up to speed on what psychologist Hans Asperger had defined back in 1944.) She gently touched my shoulder and said she thought it a possibility that my son, her godchild, fit the pattern for the disorder.
She had me at autism.
And I shook my head, “No.”
A few days later, curiosity got the better of me. Sitting at the computer, fingers poised above the keyboard, I forced myself to type ASPERGER’S SYNDROME. Yahoo had limited information available but I clicked on a few sites from the search results. I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until I let it out with a loud sigh. What I had read convinced me she was wrong.
Lack of empathy? Not my child – so what if he wasn’t in tune to the moods of others?
Little ability to form friendships? He was too young to have friends – so what if he ignored other children when they played near him?
One sided conversations? He’s three! Who converses with a 3-year old?
Intense absorption in a special interest? He happened to like garbage trucks – so what if he instinctively knew when the truck was coming and got upset if we weren’t home and he couldn’t watch the mechanical arm pick the cans up and set them down?
Clumsy movements? Not every boy is athletic!
I countered every basic symptom with a reasonable explanation.
As he got older, I couldn’t justify my ignorance anymore. But I tried. Even worse so did all the professionals around him.
His teacher said he was shy. The pediatrician said he was immature for his age. The psychologist said it might be Attention Deficit Disorder. The specialist said it might be food allergies. The immunologist said it might be asthma not a vocal tic. And I was willing to hear and believe any diagnosis; anything but THAT WORD. Not my child. Those images of Raymond Babbitt – the only picture of autism I knew – stayed in my mind.
Thank God for my husband. He inherently recognized our son was different from other children. It became his mission to find out what went on in the brain of his bright, blue-eyed boy. He read. He asked questions. He watched videos. He didn’t let a mere word rattle him from his quest. When he acquired knowledge about the neuroscience of Brain SPECT Imaging and its benefits in diagnosis and treatment of social-behavioral issues, it led to a visit with a local psychiatrist. Within three sessions the doctor gave us a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.
My son was seven years old.
Four years spent trying to fit his square behaviors into a round diagnosis. Four years waiting on the medical community to better understand the Asperger brain and what it meant to be “high-functioning autistic.” Four years for me to learn my son was nothing like “Rain Man” and, yet, he was.
And just like that – everything made sense.
Question: When has your denial and stubborn ignorance of a problem actually helped you find the solution?