Looking through the past 6 1/2 years, I can easily divide life into two parts. When we were oblivious, and when we knew.
Life started out very typical for F. Some families say that their child showed signs of having autism from the start. That wasn’t the case for us. In retrospect, there are things that alluded to autism much sooner than I realized at first. But those same things can easily be chalked up to quirks and personality too. The first two years of his life I had no idea something was different. He was a sweet, slightly aloof baby. As a college student at the time, I was happy that he played alone contently. He would sit and twiddle zippers, push toy buttons, find switches, and stay engrossed for hours. It never ever crossed my mind that these could be traits of autism at that point.
When F turned two, the language just didn’t come. The tantrums were strong and they were frequent. Again, I chalked this up to the “terrible twos” and tried to trudge along, following the regular advice for managing tantrums in toddlers. I was told that boys talk later than girls. F’s language would come soon enough.
At his two year checkup, his doctor was very concerned with his lack of speech. I listened to her advice and she put in a referral for him to be evaluated for speech. I remember the whirlwind of evaluations from there. They sent him to an audiologist just to make sure his hearing was alright.
I remember sitting at the audiologist with two year old F, silently wishing that the doctor would find something wrong with his hearing, because that seemed like an answer that we could work with. But his hearing came back perfect.
We learned that he would qualify for in home early intervention. But the waiting period was several months.
When your child is younger than three years old, every month of early intervention counts immensely. My heart sank as we waited and waited for help to start.
Some time between the age of two and the age of two and a half, F’s tantrums got significantly worse. As a naive first time mom I put the blame on myself. Maybe if I wasn’t working, or if I cooked healthier dinners, or if I was more strict, or if I was less strict. My child was angry, all of the time. And his anger never seemed to stem from regular toddler woes. F didn’t care that I didn’t buy him a candy bar. He DID care that something completely unseen bothered him as he played, and he would throw his body back in despair, chucking his toys down the staircase.
This was all happening in my late pregnancy with his younger brother.
I tried everything I knew how too. I quit my job, I took him to library story time, I brought him outdoors more often. And I still remember an actual Google search I typed out in desperation-
Can a two year old child be depressed?
Yes I actually googled this. I was so lost. I felt my sweet baby boy slipping from me.
Just before delivering my second baby during this time, one of F’s early interventionists handed me a print out on Autism. My stomach dropped when I read it. I knew so little about autism at the time. I tossed the packet in a pile on my desk and fought with myself if I should even bring it up to Nick.
She mentioned autism again one day, this time encouraging me to get him on a waitlist to be tested because it could be months to years before we would even be contacted. I agreed, still unsure of how I felt about everything. We still came up with anything other than autism to explain our son.
Christmas time came, and F was 2 1/2 years old. We were attending a church Christmas party with both of our children. F was running around as most children do at these events. We followed him around to let him safely explore around the crowd. Nick and I remember this evening clearly as the divide between when we didn’t know, and when we knew. There was a group of children his same age running around the room together, laughing and chasing each other. F ran separately, trying to tamper with plugs and speakers, and completely in his own world. He was being his authentic self. But against the back drop of typically developing children, there was a clear difference. I remember seeing a visual shift in Nicks face as he observed the same thing I did. We both just knew.
After this evening it was never a battle of pushing away the idea of autism anymore. Something changed in us as parents. I’d like to say that we were okay and it all worked out. But the truth is that this was our starting line in a massively complicated journey of grief and acceptance. That entire holiday season was in the shadow of our shock as parents. This did not come naturally to us.
But, slowly things did lighten. F has made tremendous strides. And most importantly, those little quirks that defined his babyhood, yes- the ones that in retrospect were autistic traits, those are the things that we love about him most.
The same little toddler that would shove puzzle pieces into our air vent over and over again in complete serene focus, that is the same little boy that excitedly shouted “It’s secondary colors! Orange, purple, and green!” in wonder at our spider lights just last week as we decorated for Halloween. It all comes from the same place. It comes from the fascinating mind that sees details differently and stops to notice them while others pass on by.
Yes, there is a clear line when Nick and I knew our son was autistic. But his autism is so ingrained into who he is, it has always been there, and it always will be.