When I Knew My Son Had Autism
I already knew we were in for a crazy day. Without thinking, I had RSVP’d “yes” to one birthday party in the morning, another in the afternoon, and a fundraiser in between. Luca was 4-months-old and very content to switch between hanging out in the Ergobaby and drinking a bottle. Micah, on the other hand, was 2.5-years-old, and nap time would be hard to come by. With our diaper bag packed we left for the first party, knowing that we would almost certainly end up walking out of at least one of these gatherings early with a screaming toddler on Jared's shoulder.
Party #1 was at Micah’s classmate’s home. They had done a beautiful job of arranging different rooms for different activities. They had a face painter, balloon artists, Lego tables, and more. As soon as we walked in, the birthday boy greeted Micah, and Micah didn’t respond. Didn’t even look in his direction. Maybe he didn’t hear him, I thought. I asked Micah if he wanted to say hi and wish his friend a happy birthday. Without acknowledging me, he bolted into the kitchen. By the time Jared or I would catch up with him, he was already off to his next destination.
Eventually, and with much direction, Micah made it over to the lego table. I was relieved, thinking he would play there for a few minutes, only to have my hopes dashed when he grabbed a traffic light Lego (street signs and traffic lights are a major obsession) and took off again. Once he lost interest in the traffic light, he turned his attention to the easel and magnetic letters. He pushed his hands into the letters, grabbed as many as he could, and threw them over the easel. I was horrified. When I stopped him from throwing the second batch, he lost it. I could see from the look on his face that he wasn't doing this to test me. He felt like he NEEDED to do it, but that didn't mean I could let him.
We continued the same cycle of unwanted behavior > redirection > meltdown for the rest of the party, and it only went downhill from there for the rest of the day. At one point I looked around at the other parents and noticed that no one else was doing with this. Sure, some kids needed a reminder of the rules here and there, but for the most part, the other kids were playing together and behaving beautifully. Were we doing something wrong? I mean, probably, but we really couldn't keep it together for a 2 hour birthday party? It wasn't just the behavior, either. The other children were speaking to each other and the adults. Even if they weren't speaking clearly, it was still conversational, whereas Micah either ignored us, repeated us, or answered in complete gibberish.
My concern over Micah's speech is what lead me to have him evaluated for Early Intervention (a program that pairs eligible children with services that will help them) the first time. Six months before the parties, at the beginning of the school year, it was determined at his first evaluation that Micah's delay was too mild at that time to qualify for EI. At the time I took this to mean that autism was unlikely and I stopped pushing the issue for a while. I didn't have unrealistic expectations for his behavior; I had been a nanny for years before we had Micah. That's not to say I was an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I had certainly seen my fair share of tantrums, and not one of them touched Micah's meltdowns. He could scream and cry for HOURS, hyperventilating and thrashing. There was nothing we could do to stop him, and we tried everything. It would be like he wasn't in his own head anymore. He had gone through a head-banging phase that lasted for a year, where he would slam his head as hard as he could into the floor. It was so scary, but his pediatrician reassured us that he absolutely would not cause any real damage, so just put him in a safe space until he had calmed himself. It didn’t do much to calm us, though.
After the Day Of The Parties, I told Jared that I thought it might be time to go through the evaluation process again with Micah. Before that day, Jared had serious doubts about the possibility of autism in our son. Micah almost always made eye contact, and despite his speech delay, he was usually very friendly with all adults. On this day, though, Jared agreed with me, and that was a huge relief. That support system is everything , guys. Micah’s second evaluation did lead to a diagnosis of mild/moderate autism, which honestly felt like a huge relief by that point. We were just happy to have answers and start a plan for success for Micah. Every single teacher and therapist we have met in these last six months has been absolutely incredible, and I just can't believe our luck! It will be a long road ahead for all of us, with Micah leading the way, but he is a truly amazing boy, and we're so excited to help him reach his full potential.
I share this with all of you today because the autism community is large, strong, and diverse. We all have a different story to share, and we all need support. It only takes a moment for us to reach out and give a word of encouragement, or a helpful suggestion when you've been there. If you have concerns about your child, talk to your pediatrician ASAP. Do not ignore your instincts. You can learn more about the signs of autism, the evaluation process, where to go from there, and so much more at AutismSpeaks.org.
Does your child have autism? When did you realize it was a possibility? Please consider sharing your story in the comments.