A second theory about my son’s disability, was that he was partially deaf. As the first years passed, and his language continued to be very limited and not functional (such as counting to ten and not saying much else), the theory became more popular. It was backed up by his non-responsiveness to people calling his name, and to how long and well he slept each day from a young age – undisturbed by the usual meaningful noises that wake babies.
One particular incident when my son was about two and a half, sticks in the memory. I’d taken my son to visit a neighbour I’d met by chance, who had a child only a month or so older than my son. I tried to get the kids to play together, but the other child’s physical skills and language were so advanced compared to my child that it wasn’t working in the slightest. Eventually the boy said to me in all earnestness “he can’t hear me”. I tried to explain that he could, but even the boy’s mother looked sceptical at my claim. At one stage her son climbed up into his treehouse out back and called over and over to my son for him to join him. It wasn’t possible since my son couldn’t climb, but beyond that my son also didn’t understand the boy’s words, and apparently wasn’t paying full attention. He never even looked up to see the boy in the treehouse, calling out so loudly to get his attention. I didn’t feel that we were welcome back after all that awkwardness, and never did go back.
I knew my son could hear just fine. If you said the right words, like “car” he always put his head up. If you made a meaningful sound like jingling car keys, he could hear it all the way across the house, no problem. I’d try to tell people this but with all the other evidence against his hearing being OK, the theory remained.
After he received the diagnosis of Autism, we were sent along to get his hearing tested anyway – for general health, but also to simply rule it out. As we knew it would be, his hearing was fine.
We’ve gone through therapies over the past years to improve his attentiveness and his understanding of the relevance and importance of language, but we still encounter people who think he has hearing difficulties. One of the saddest instances happened at kindergarten one day.
I was at the kindergarten to pick up my son, I was talking at the time to his support worker who stays there with him through-out each session. It was tidy-up time, which my son usually loves taking part in, because it’s a predictable part of the daily routine. But that day he was so enjoying the water and sand activities, that he wasn’t registering the “tidy-up time” call, he was in his own world (as is typical of Autistic children). I watched as a child approached him and shouted “tidy-up time” at him, then kept shouting it, getting closer each time as my son continued to not acknowledge him in any way. Until he was literally shouting it straight into my son’s ear, with still no response. Let’s leave alone the fact that this (nasty) kid could and should have just got on with doing his own tidy-up, without having to shout it endlessly at my boy. I shouted back at the boy “oi, don’t shout in his ear” and raced to stop him, at which point the kid ran away quite sheepishly – no apologies of course.
It won’t be the last time someone tells me my son is deaf, or acts as if he is – a common theory for both adults and kids, though kids tend to be more vocal about it. It doesn’t surprise me either, we all understand the idea of someone not being able to hear, it’s so much harder to get your head around this controversial diagnosis called “Autism”.