I didn't want to admit my son had all the signs of autism
Nearly 16 years ago, my eldest son’s preschool teacher (whose name I've long forgotten) pulled me aside to discuss her concerns about my child’s behavior. She told me, as softly as she could, that she thought my son might have some developmental issues.
“He’s fine,” I said.
“I know,” she replied, “but there are some behaviors that concern me.”
She went on to list how my son preferred to play by himself instead of with other children, how sometimes he would show little emotion and how he would talk in different, strange voices.
“That’s just him being funny,” I interjected.
“Maybe so, but most kids will only do that in front of others. He does it by himself, when no one seems to be paying attention.”
She explained that before she worked at the school, she was a special needs teacher, and although she wasn’t a doctor, she thought it would be a good idea to have my son evaluated.
Evaluated sounded a lot like judged, and at the time, I was hesitant to agree. I had no experience with school interventions or educational plans, and didn’t know what to expect. It was the teacher’s calm voice and kind eyes that ultimately swayed me. With my permission, she requested a psychologist come to their class over the next week to watch my son.
“He won’t even know the doctor is there,” she said.
A month later, after being asked to fill out a thick packet of paperwork (which included some for my son’s pediatrician), my husband and I were invited to the school to sit and discuss their findings.
“We aren’t sure what’s going on specifically,” the psychologist said, “but we do believe he has some sort of processing delay.”
Throughout the meeting I felt lost and slightly confused. I didn’t know what a “processing delay” meant but worried that somehow it was my fault. Had I parented him wrong? Did my husband or I have bad genes? Would it affect him for the rest of his life?
Maybe because I was so young, or possibly because, growing up, I’d never heard of the school giving a child a diagnosis, I just accepted their findings with few questions. Something called an Individualized Education Program was put in place, and I was told that one of the provisions my son would have was a weekly meeting with a speech and language pathologist to help him better communicate.
It seemed to make sense, so we signed the plan, showing we agreed. The next year at a new school, I brought up the IEP and was told by the school secretary, “We don’t do that here.” I simply nodded; I had no clue that the law was being broken in that moment.
As my son got older, I noticed areas where he seemed to struggle and other kids didn’t. In his karate class, he was the only one not listening to the instructor. Instead of kicking, he would lie on the floor and wiggle like a worm. He was just playful, I told myself. In Cub Scouts, he would bore other kids by talking excessively about Yu-Gi-Oh cards. Again I rationalized his behavior, telling my husband that he was “passionate.”
Out in public, he refused to talk on his own, instead reciting lines from his favorite TV show, Ed, Edd n Eddy. I thought he was being imaginative. Other times he would ignore everyone and stare blankly at them, never making eye contact. It was as if he were a robot that had powered down. He must be tired, I thought.
In class, he seemed to do fine. His teachers always enjoyed him, and although he still struggled to make friends, he learned well and had excellent grades. He raced through worksheets and never had behavioral issues. I used this as evidence that he was just like everyone else.
My eyes were finally opened one afternoon at baseball practice.
I stood on the sidelines with other mothers and watched as the kids sat in the dugout, waiting for their turn to bat. My son was the only kid not sitting. Instead, he was barking like a dog and trying to bite the other kids’ hats. They told him to stop, but he didn’t listen.
“Knock it off,” I scolded, but a few minutes later, he was at it again.
When it was his turn at bat, I confided in a mother near me, who also happened to be the coach’s adult daughter. “I just don’t know what’s going on,” I said. “The school told me a few years ago he has a processing delay, but I don’t even understand what that means.”
“Have you ever heard of Asperger's syndrome?” she asked. It turned out this mom was studying to become a licensed child and adolescent psychologist and had a wealth of knowledge of childhood disorders.
“I’m not saying he has it, but what I think you should do is go home and look it up online. See if any of the symptoms match his behavior. If you think so, I have a few numbers you can call. I know an excellent child psychologist in the area that can help too.”
I went home after practice and did as she suggested. Reading the list of symptoms, like avoiding eye contact, missing social cues, talking in strange voices, fixating on specific things, they all sounded exactly like my son. The next morning, I called the number for a psychological testing center the mom gave me and scheduled an appointment.
The assessment took three days and included games, quizzes and interviews with my son, me and my husband, and a packet completed by our son’s teacher. The team doing the testing took a few weeks to compile the data before presenting us with a final diagnosis: Asperger's syndrome, which was on the autism spectrum, and ADD, inattentive type.
I was told that the ADD diagnosis was common alongside Asperger's syndrome. They also told me something I didn’t know I needed to hear — that his diagnosis would not prevent him from having a long, happy and healthy life, and that nothing I could have done would have changed it.
It took four long years for me to finally get it through my head that my son needed more than a mom who just shrugged her shoulders when he acted differently. Four years before I understood that, instead of excuses, he needed a warrior to hold others (like a lazy school) accountable for his approved treatments. My son needed behavioral therapies and interventions to help him manage his disorder and find healthier ways to connect with the world.
Fortunately my son thrived once he got the right kind of help and once I got my head out of my ass and started working with him on a treatment plan. He managed to complete high school, earn the rank of Eagle Scout, meet a nice young lady and fall in love, and he even took a trip abroad recently — without us! I learned that my fears about my son were unfounded. He may have a diagnosis, but he isn't disabled.
I regret not being wise enough to know early on that my son needed help, and I'm grateful we had the interaction of others to help guide us on this confusing, sometimes scary road. For every brave teacher and kind mom that speaks up to a parent about their child in a way that is kind and considerate, thank you. It is because of you that moms like me understand how to get help for our children.
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