Autism. There are so many feelings and realities associated with the word: fear, hope, trust, anger, despair, relief, determination and happiness. Years ago an autism diagnosis was fairly rare. Parents were told to put their children in asylums. Mothers were blamed for their child’s condition. So much was unknown.
Today, we know more about autism, but much remains unknown. There are many clues to the why and the how, but no one is sure how it all plays out or what exactly causes one child to have autism and another to be ‘neurotypical’, whatever neurotypical means. My grandson, Doran, has been diagnosed with autism for 7 going on 8 years. Some days his autism is easier; some days his autism is more difficult.
Doran has made great strides. He works hard everyday to navigate a world that is often confusing and downright painful to him. When he was first diagnosed, his parents were told a lot of ‘nevers’ and ‘will be’s’. He will never say “I love you.” He will be dependent-always. He will never communicate with you. He will always struggle socially. He will never have a sense of humor; he will never smile. As it turns out, Doran does say “I love you” and means it. He is an affectionate, intelligent child who, according to his teachers, sees himself as a learner. He even likes a little girl in his class and tries to get her attention by calling her ‘poopy-head’. Somehow that seems like typical 5th-grade boy behavior. My grandson thinks he is hilarious and often points out the ridiculous and the funny to the rest of us. Instead of always wanting to be alone, Doran wants to play with and hang out with other children-sometimes, just like the rest of us want to hang out-sometimes. Typical or not, Doran is a child growing up. We have come a long way and we have a long way to go. That in itself is a gift.
Autism is a spectrum. Actually it should be called autisms because once you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. Some people with autism require diapering all their lives. Others run amazingly successful corporations. Watching Doran, I think we all have a little bit of the spectrum in us even if we are labeled neurotypical. The autism in us causes us to seek out the supersoft bedsheets, the calming sound of the ocean or a stream, reflexively cringe at certain sounds and crave certain types of food to name a few quirks. We all have a little bit.
The new statistic is that 1 in 88 children is diagnosed somewhere along the autism spectrum. 1 in 88. Imagine a face and a personality behind each of the 1 in 88. It is incredible. If you suspect that a child you know may be affected by autism, please talk to a qualified medical doctor or pediatric neuropsychologist. While autism bequeaths many gifts, it also comes with many challenges, so early intervention is key. Now there is a pre-screening exercise that you can perform yourself called M-CHAT. It asks simple questions like whether your child points to things of interest, participates in pretend play, and so on. This is an invaluable tool that wasn’t available for Doran’s parents when he was little. So if you suspect something, take advantage of this questionnaire and seek out autism professionals that can help.
April is Autism Awareness Month. There are many celebrations and activities going on all month. Check out Autism Speaks for resources and information. If you can “Light it Up Blue” this month; install a blue light at your entryway. Paint your nails blue, wear a puzzle piece pin, and explore the path of autism with us. Doran and I thank you.