Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Yet, I cannot pass up an opportunity to learn everything I can about the subject because it has changed my life.
My son has Aspergers Syndrome (AS), which is an autism spectrum disorder. Today, 1 out of every 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.
While the effect of AS on peoples lives varies, persons with AS often have limited social skills. These include an inability to read body language, navigate personal space, take turns conversing and speak in a normal tone of voice (people with AS often speak loudly and dont understand the need to lower their voices in quiet places such as a library or church). While they can have extraordinary vocabularies, they also can be extremely literal and have difficulty using language in a social context. Persons with AS prefer routines and are often preoccupied with a particular subject or talent to an extent that they become expert on it.
April is Autism Awareness Month and with the meteoric rise in autism diagnoses, I expect to see an explosion of information in the media. I welcome it as much as I fear it. I want to greedily soak up every bit of data I can find and at the same time I want to turn away from the reality my son faces. I say this with the knowledge that his future is not bleak. But as his mother, it pains me to know his obstacles could be far greater than the average boy.
I still consider myself lucky. My son was diagnosed early, began treatment young and I believe he has what one expert calls a dash of autism. To look at him, even to speak to him for short period of time, you would not know that he is on the spectrum.
But hes always been a little quirky and that doesnt go unnoticed, even by him. When he was five he told me that he knows hes different than everyone else in his kindergarten class. He explained it like this: Mom, its like everyone elses favorite color is blue and mine is green. They all like blue, but I like green. I see everything through the color green. I knew exactly what he meant because for the past four years Ive watched him try to fit his green-loving self into a blue world.
He was three when his eccentricities and temper tantrums became unmanageable and we knew they were not going to be fixed by encouragement and time outs. He spoke early and in complete sentences and we called him the little professor. He never used contractions and had an outstanding vocabulary. As a toddler it wasnt unusual to hear him say, I will not eat that disgusting vegetable. When he entered preschool, his facility with language became his Achilles heel, for he had no concept of give and take and was an expert on Star Wars by age 4. When he talked to a friend he expected him to stay until he was done. The average preschooler has an attention span of five minutes, if youre lucky. After five minutes my son was only warming up. When his friend would walk away, my son would punch him and then scream and cry with frustration. This daily occurrence often ended with his teacher having to hold him in a corner of the room so he didnt hurt himself or anyone else.
Its been two years since he was diagnosed and started treatment. In that time Ive learned how fortunate I am that the prism through which he sees the world is not so different than mine. For unlike many children with full blown autism, my son can speak and we can understand each other. I was reminded of this when I viewed Autism Every Day , which profiles families dealing with the relentless care of children with autism. The sense of desperation the mothers feel is palpable, making the film often hard to watch. But it is also inspirational, as they retain a sense of hope for their childrens future.
It is this hope and the ability to find magic in the different world these children inhabit which has been the most surprising to me. When my son was diagnosed I had no idea if the therapies would make a difference. I didnt know if he could enter a mainstream school. I didnt know if hed ever make friends or even be able to have a normal conversation with anyone. I didnt know when or if the violent tantrums brought on by frustration would stop. I was so focused on the behaviors I wanted to change I didnt think about what I might gain from my sons view of the world.
Its a very exact world that prefers everything to be black and white, but is learning to accept some gray. Hes made his first friends this year and is learning about compromise. I can be three rooms away in the house and his voice is so loud I can still hear him talking. But thats OK because his friends dont seem to mind. Not surprisingly his best subject is math and his passion is numbers. He thinks about them all the time and they define his experiences. When he has a writing assignment, before he puts pencil to paper he figures out in his head the least amount of words he can use to express himself, then reluctantly starts writing.
Recently, I was watching TV and my son came in a little before 10 p.m. I was flustered because I was crying and didnt want him to see. He walked up to my chair, his face inches from mine, and began talking. He didnt stop talking until I interrupted to tell him it was 10 to 10 and he had to go to bed. He then looked at the clock, told me Mom, its 9:48, which means its 12 to 10 and he went to bed. I turned my program back on and realized he never even noticed I was crying, yet he knew exactly what time it was.
But when I worry about his ability to make emotional connections I only have to remember his dream. He wants to be a scientist so he can invent things. He tells me he wants to invent a machine that will let people live forever so I will never die.
Deanna Martin Mackey is the mother of an 11-year-old girl, a 7-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl. She is an associate general manager at KPBS, and has been writing professionally for 20 years. She is working on her first novel about a family.
For more information about autism including early diagnosis, legislation to fund research and treatment of autism and how you can help, visit www.sd-autism.org and autismspeaks.org .
March 29, 2007 at 03:07 AM
Like you, I find it hard to reconcile the discrepancies in my [two] autistic children. Good for you to promote Autism Awareness month. I think that there must be few people on the planet who are unaware of the CDC's statistics, but what it means to individual families is more difficult for people to grasp. Best wishes http://whitterer-autism.blogspot.com -----
March 29, 2007 at 03:08 AM
You are a gift. What a wonderful column.
April 03, 2007 at 02:04 AM
This is very moving. Good luck with your son and everything that life may throw us........
April 04, 2007 at 05:32 AM
thank you for the information. My 7 yr. old granddaughter has AS and I'd like to check the links to help her...evw
April 04, 2007 at 04:36 PM
Dear Deanna: Thank you for the article, it's beautiful. I have a 13 year old daughter with AS. The doctors and psychologists didn't know what she had at first, and it took several years to narrow it down to AS. Since we live in Tijuana, we don't have the same resources for treatment as you. But we are using everything we have to help her. And I see her give her best and strive to fit in everyday. She's in 5th grade and has started to make friends, and although they sense that she is different, they don't know exactly what. She's very sensitive to everything around her and very creative. She loves to draw and paint, and does it extremely well. We love her very much and could not imagine our lives without her 'quirkiness' and what we call her "Monty Python" humor. Thanks again, and a big hug for your son.
April 06, 2007 at 11:39 PM
Great writing about a complicated and personal topic. Thanks for another wonderful column.
April 13, 2007 at 05:03 AM
thanks for opening up your feelings on AS. My son is 3.5 and recently diagnosed with AS and I do see similarities in my son as you stated above.
May 23, 2007 at 02:11 PM
It sounds like you're describing my eight year old son to a "T". Wow. I've forwarded this article to my husband. I have two deaf boys, but I believe they're also dyspraxic, the 4 year old much more so than the 8 year old. Thank you for your article. It really helped me to understand my son a bit better. My son sees in green, too. ;)
August 15, 2007 at 07:34 PM
Dear Deanna: Thank you for your courageous and inspirational story. Your unconditional honesty is moving. You truly are a brilliant writer and mother. My nephew has AS, he has capitivated my heart since day one. He is my, "Beautiful Mind." I call him that because of his love of science and math, he too is fascinated by the subjects. His intelligence amazes my husband and me. The fancy footwork he does while going through the market has almost caused a few to tumble in his path, I just tell him, come on Bo Jangles whatch out for people. However, then I get grilled on who is Bo Jangles and why did you call me that. I smile and laugh and explain away.