Many people I have met do not know what Autism looks like, or what it is, some even deny it is an actual condition (as opposed to simply bad parenting). So I think it is important to provide an intimate instance of Autism: My son.
I’m going to start with an explanation of the official diagnostic criteria, then apply it, so you can see how it can manifest.
Autism requires at least six symptoms – including two from the category of social impairment, one of impaired communication, and one of repetitive or restrictive behaviours. (There are other considerations, such as onset must happen prior to three years old, but this post is just an introduction to the sorts of behaviours you might find in an Autistic child, such as my own.) The following examples of my son’s behaviour are just that – examples – they are by no means an exhaustive list of the challenges caused by his Autism.
Social impairment: My son would avoid eye contact, and could get distraught if someone tried to maintain eye contact with him for more than a brief period of time. He would not respond to his name (or indeed to most language – ergo why some thought he was deaf). Heart-breakingly for me, he wouldn’t hug or kiss – I spent the first couple of years of his life never having received an intended hug or kiss from him, beyond the necessitated “hug” of holding on when I lifted him. And he was violent – biting, hitting, destroying property. It was common for me to have broken skin from his full-force biting.
Communication: My son had delayed speech, and unsual speech when it did start up. He did not babble like other babies did – he was notably quiet. He started to slowly pick up some single words, and impressed us early on when he leant to count to ten before most kids could. But counting to ten was easy for him because it was a predictable and repeatable set of words. It was not intentional communication – he enjoyed and used random sounds more than he would actual words. Once words started up, he had strong echolalia – repeating back words without knowing what he’s saying. He is an impressive mimic – he’d not just repeat the word but also the precise inflection. Body language was usually completely ignored by him – if you’d reach out to him he wouldn’t put his arms up in response, if you pointed at something he would never look at the pointed-to object.
Repetitive and restricted behaviour: My son would insist on rubbing his head against walls, to the extend that he developed two balding patches. He wouldn’t play with any toys except cars, and even then only to line them up. Our house would be lines and lines of cars that we weren’t allowed to touch or knock, else resulting in a long and uncontrollable tantrum. He would “toe-walk” rather than down on his heels. He has a “happy dance” – when he is happy he hums and flaps his hands and rocks from foot to foot, for extended periods of time. He would run back and forth along the same path through the house, over and over. He insisted on sameness in almost every area of life – same clothes, same food, same routine – alterations from expectations again leading to meltdowns. He insisted on car-rides many times a day, especially when certain events happened like my husband came home from work. At it’s peak we were having about five car-rides a day – car-rides that went nowhere except back home because if we tried to get out of the car at a beach or a park or a store, he would scream and cry.
Even though that’s just a taste of what he was like, I know it sounds pretty dreadful. And it was. He was at the moderate to severe end of the spectrum – it’s important to understand that Autism ranges from severe to mild. And important to appreciate that with therapies, you can often (not always) help to shift your child down the spectrum. After two years of a large range of therapies, our son now sits at the mild to moderate end of the spectrum. His Autism is still obvious to most who meet him, especially when he is happy, or when people try to talk to him. We have had to teach him things that come naturally to other children, but he has managed to learn them – such as how to hug and to read emotion in other people’s faces. He has learnt to put together simple (but always awkward) small sentences.
He has come such a long way, which is not just testament to his therapists, or to us as parents, but also to his own remarkable desire to learn, despite all the hardships in the way of his progress. Sometimes, I am quite simply in awe of him. He is an instance of both the hardships and the hope to be found in Autism.