April is Autism Awareness month. Did you know that approximately 67 million people in the world are affected by autism? If you don’t know someone who is on the autism spectrum, would you even give this fact a second thought? Quite honestly, I’m not sure I would if I didn’t have a son that was diagnosed with Aspergers, an autism spectrum disorder.
When E was 2 years old, his daycare contacted us to set up a meeting. We were shocked when the director gently suggested we should have E evaluated for autism. Some of their observations included the way he would not interact with his friends while playing—choosing instead to play alongside them rather than with them. He also had a certain way of lining up the trucks he was playing with. He didn’t use them the way they were “supposed” to be played with. He also wasn’t very verbal, preferring to point at the things he wanted.
MJ and I were obstinate and refused to believe that anything was wrong with our son. He marched to the beat of a different drum, and that was fine by us. We decided to do the evaluation to get the daycare off our backs. After a long day of testing, the doctor looked at us and asked, “What did the daycare see that made them think he needed this evaluation? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. If you want him to talk more, take away his pacifier.”
We left with E’s clean bill of health, our vindication, which we were eager to slap down on the daycare directors desk. Even after we thought the issue was behind us, MJ and I began to notice things that were a little off. E was obsessive about certain toys or subjects. He would watch nothing but Thomas the Train videos over and over and methodically line up his toys. He would get very upset if you tried to move them or play with them. When I took him to the park, he would run screaming across the playground at kids he wanted to play with. Again and again I pulled him aside and told him how to walk up to them and introduce himself and ask nicely if they wanted to play—only to see him tear away and run screaming into the middle of the group sending them scattering.
The trouble in school got worse. Daycare, preschool, and kindergarten are a blur of phone calls and school visits due to disruptive behavior and emotional breakdowns. First grade was a turning point: E was diagnosed as having ADHD by his pediatrician. After a ton of research and soul-searching, he started his first medication to help with his attention and hyperactivity. E was still having meltdowns— sometimes over the way his socks felt, or the tags in his T-shirts. I Googled until my hands cramped and discovered a whole new set of foreign terms such as “sensory integration disorder” and “occupational therapy”.
It took us another year before we found our current pediatric psychiatrist who finally diagnosed E with mild Asperger’s Syndrome. E was 7 and we had him on medicine for ADHD and in a variety of therapies: occupational, behavioral, and play. Since then, I’ve devoured any book or website that will give me as much information as possible on Aspergers.
We’re lucky. E is mild. He’s social and engaging, he just needs a little help learning how to read social cues from others and controlling his emotions—things most people develop on their own as they mature.
According to the Autism Speaks website, there are certain red flags for autism. If you notice your child is displaying any of these behaviors, have them evaluated as soon as possible. Start with your pediatrician who can direct you to a specialist.
- No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter
- No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months or thereafter
- No babbling by 12 months
- No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving by 12 months
- No words by 16 months
- No two-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months
- No response when the child’s name is called by 10 months
- Any loss of speech, babbling, or social skills at any age
We’re still a long way from where we would like for E to be. Everyday it’s two steps forward, one step back. But we are making progress, and there’s one thing that’s certain: we are not alone. There is no cure for autism, but early intervention is key to improving the outcome and helping them lead as normal a life as possible.