So I saw this article today about the earliest signs (in the first months of life) that your child may have autism. I never thought to write about this before because I don’t want to be one of those people who instills fear in every parent’s heart, but I figure I should share our experience, for what it’s worth.
I have told part of this in The Wayback Machine but it bears repeating, especially in light of the new study.
When Jonah was just 6 or 7 weeks old – before his first vaccination – I brought him to a well baby visit with my wonderfully compassionate and intelligent family doctor, Jacob Reider. Within a minute of greeting us, he looked carefully at Boo and, very gently, said, “hey, buddy…there’s a human in here” – and waved his hand slowly over Boo’s face.
“What is it?” I asked, the nervous first-time mother seeing nothing at all wrong with her child.
“Infants look at faces,” he told me. “They love to look at faces. Jonah is staring at the lights.”
With growing anxiety I recalled that Andy and I had already nicknamed Boo “moth boy” because he loved to look at lights so much. We were amused by this and nothing more, but Dr. Reider was frightening me, and I expressed that immediately.
“Should we be concerned?” I asked. He did not panic me — he told me not to worry, that we would keep an eye on Jonah…and we did. When he did not speak (or seem to understand or communicate) by 18 months we had his hearing tested (no problems there) and then we were immediately placed in the early intervention system, where speech, occupational, and special education teachers came to our home twice a week or so to work with our son.
I was lucky enough to be a stay-at-home mother, so I was there with them as they brought toys and tools to help Jonah. I believe if it weren’t for our careful, observant doctor, we would never have gotten such early intervention.
By the time Jonah was 22 months old, he was diagnosed with autism by a cold, flat-voiced female developmental pediatrician. It was a day I will never forget; I sobbed in my car for a long while before I could drive us home. I got a second opinion from another developmental pediatrician and, in a much more caring manner, he confirmed the diagnosis.
I believe that, if presented with 50 one-year-olds, I would have a decent degree of accuracy in picking out the ones who are on the spectrum, just by spending a few minutes with each. Why? Because hindsight is 20/20, and now I remember all kinds of signs. And although I don’t believe all of these things about Jonah indicate autism, they are all things that stood him apart from other babies, almost from the very beginning of his life.
Jonah was vastly different from other babies. He grunted a lot (we called it growling) almost since the day he was born. He appeared to be trying to say “mama” as the months went on, but he only could call me “em.” At ten months old, he was still not talking, and my mother chastised me: “Why aren’t you teaching him his words?” she demanded.
I was left feeling scared, inadequate as a mother, and desperate to figure this out. I read to my son. I cuddled him, loved him with all my heart, tried to teach him. I felt a phenomenal failure, I had baby blues, and my best friend suicided by shotgun when Jonah was 5 months old. In short, I was a mess.
Jonah did not play with his toys correctly. He turned all his Matchbox cars upside down and spun them on the table. He spun anything he could, including himself, once he could walk on his own (very early, at 8 1/2 months old). He enjoyed destructing block towers but not building them.
He wanted music, lights, adults, nursing (I nursed him until he was 15 months old) and water — pools, the ocean, his bath — but he ignored other kids as if they were mere obstacles.
And once, when I wanted to try to teach him the word “plane” and there was an airplane overhead, I held him in my arms and pointed to it. “Look, Jonah, there’s a plane in the sky.”
He stared at my finger, not to where my finger was pointing. I felt a chill run up my spine.
At one friend’s child’s first birthday party, he refused to leave the entrance, obsessed with opening and closing the screen door. When we left early, a friend’s 9-month-old son waved and told us “bye bye” — and I deemed the kid a genius.
Of course after enough of these eccentricities in our son became apparent, we knew something was wrong. The interesting part is I dismissed autism as a possibility together. I mean, “those kids” crouched in the corner rocking. They were non-responsive and un-affectionate. They banged their heads on the wall. Ignorance.
Our son was engaged, cuddly, and never acted in any way I would have called “autistic.” He was born so perfect looking and seeming. We’d won the risky lottery of baby making, avoiding Down’s Syndrome, birth defects, preemie problems, and any other life-threatening or frightening newborn realities.
And so his ultimate diagnosis was a knife in my heart.
Anyway, I do think early detection in infants may be possible.
You need an observant, caring, special doctor, but you can also look for signs on your own. Don’t be paranoid, but don’t go into denial either. Never underestimate the power of denial, to quote the Ricky character in the movie American Beauty.
Remember your child is always your child, and the diagnosis will never change that or define him (or her).
Of course if you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. All these things may or may not apply to other kids.
I just wanted to share our experience, in light of this new study.
If you feel alone, unsure, or just want to e-mail/chat please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
More about Boo soon. There are still “winter card” boxes with his card design included, and you can buy them here. They make great non-denominational holiday cards.
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