I was inspired to write about this today as my two men packed up the car and headed off on a West Coast Adventure Trip. There will be thousands of miles to travel and limitless roads to encounter. Of course, I was invited, but I am smart enough to know the invitation was a courtesy. This was a Father/Son road trip that was destined to be just that.
My #3 was born in 2005, just a stone’s throw from my 40th birthday. I remember that baby who wouldn’t sleep but tended to just cat nap his way through his first six months; couldn’t quite get the hang of breast feeding no matter what we tried and looked at me like an old man who was mildly annoyed with my inability to remedy his situation. That said, he was #3 and his birth order made him low man on the totem pole. His nap time was often a car seat, his routine was his sister’s routines and meals were definitely on the fly. Still, he managed to adjust to the knack of being along for the ride and I believed he was developing like any other baby. Boys are always a little slower to talk, walk and play with others, right? After all, his sisters were tiny geniuses and obviously not comparative to any graphs or data…
One day, around 18 months, he was rocking pretty aggressively while sitting on the couch watching Dora. A family friend turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about that. My son did that too, but with therapy he was able to learn to control it”. Huh? What? He’s dancing. Okay, there’s no music, but there’s nothing “wrong” with my son.
By his second year, I realized that he wasn’t interested in the same things as other children his age. Christmas didn’t excite him; animals were of zero interest and interaction with other children was absent. Therefore, after several months of specialists, testing and observation, he was diagnosed with Autism; but highly functional (whatever that means).
What did I do to cause this? How do I fix him so he will be normal?
Well, why not him? Autism does not discriminate. Autism doesn’t care that my other children are not challenged or that I was super healthy during my pregnancy. And let’s be clear about diagnosis. The spectrum exists to get your child diagnosed and offer therapies. As a parent, you have to get in there and work with educators and physicians to come up with the plan that is right for your child. It’s not a chart where your kid lands and stays; it’s forever fluid and you’d better be too. Fasten your seatbelt for the rollercoaster of a lifetime.
This is where the rubber hits the road. As a parent, are you going to enter denial or are you going to do everything in your power, not necessarily to cure Autism, but to ensure your child has every opportunity to thrive and learn to the best of their ability? We chose the latter.
Sacrifice and Determination have been the defining words for this family since 2005. My career took a backseat to his needs. I learned you can’t be at the office when school calls because he has run into the parking lot or overturned a table and his school day needs to conclude. We learned that plans don’t mean shit when you have an autistic child. Travel and dining out didn’t completely stop, but sometimes the planning and preparation involved in such outings were often too exhausting or unpredictable to even bother with the attempt. We got used to disappointment but also celebrated every triumph. Priorities changed. His first haircut at age 12 by a professional was monumental. We celebrated with a ride to look at road signs because he likes that better than cake.
He has taught us to live with deeper empathy for others, patience for situations beyond our control and the talent to pivot on a moment’s notice. He has made his classmates better people who have learned to come to the aid of those who need help and to accept and embrace differences in every individual. A teacher once tried to encourage him to finish his test faster than he was working. He politely told her that if he didn’t finish it in time that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. His teacher disclosed to me that she would be taking that advice.
As Earl has grown into his 16th year; all 6’ of him, the stemming has all but subsided and coping mechanisms include lots of fidgets, deep breaths and jazz music. He understands what Autism is; how it affects him and is pretty confident speaking about it. His thought processes are fascinating and his personality is infectious. He can tell you any US Route, Highway, or Interstate; its origins and its destination. Show him a picture of the family and he can tell you the date it was taken and what we were doing. He studies Google Maps and then redesigns bridges and roadways that he believes he can improve. His goal is to attend Purdue University to study Civil Engineering. I will be here to make sure he has the tools and assistance to get him where he wants to be.
April celebrates World Autism Month. Chances are, you’ve met an autistic person and didn’t even know. If you’ve had the good fortune to meet my #3, then you know he’s magical. In honor of Earl, do me a favor. Next time you see a parent having difficulty with a child, they could use a smile and a nod of understanding rather than a smirk of disapproval. And if you’re in a restaurant, send a bottle of wine or a dessert to their table.
A huge thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with Earl thus far. And thank you for all who work with Autistic children every day.
Finally, hats off to all my Autism parents this month and every month. You got this.