In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, I have asked my friend Jennifer to share her story with us. Jenn's son, Wyatt, is a 6 year old boy living with Autism, and this is her story...
When I saw my son for the first time, I never thought he’d become a statistic; a faceless number with a label that’s both controversial and misunderstood…my son has Autism. As soon as you read that word, I’m sure your mind wanders to what the mainstream media has fed you: a mute, antisocial child who is aggressive, absent, and rocking in a corner somewhere. As with most things in the media, this is not reality. I want to share a little about how Autism looks in my household. I also want to share my experience to not only spread awareness and education about Autism, but change your perception on Autism and the stigma that follows that label.
My son Wyatt is a rambunctious 6 year-old typical boy. He loves to roll around in the dirt, wear his cape and pretend to be Superman and crash trucks into each other while Ironman shoots lasers at Optimus Prime. He loves to cook, watch movies, sing, dance, play with animals, and laugh his little face off. He also happens to have Autism. His journey with Autism began when he was seven months old. My husband and I began to notice that our little miracle baby wasn’t developing like other babies his age. He wasn’t sitting up, rolling around, or attempting to crawl like other babies were. We took him to his pediatrician who assured us he was fine…boys develop slowly, nothing is wrong. A month later, my husband tragically passed away. At that moment, I was faced with the reality that I was now a single mother and had to ensure my son never felt like something was missing from his life.
A month or so after my husband passed, I noticed that Wyatt still had made no progress in his development. Back to the pediatrician I went and again I heard her famous line “Boys are slow. Don’t worry about it”. But, a mother’s intuition runs deep and I KNEW something wasn’t right. What followed were months and months of various pediatrician visits and online searching. I was determined to find an answer so I could help Wyatt reach his developmental goals for his age. During this time, every little milestone Wyatt achieved was celebrated with pomp and circumstance. He walked at 18 months and uttered his first coherent word a little after he turned 2. By this time, I had pinpointed a few possible disorders or delays that fit Wyatt’s various symptoms. On the bottom of my list was Autism. Since doctors still didn’t want to help me out, I chose to go back to school and educate myself on mental disorders and delays that could afflict a child in their early years of development. This is where I learned just what Autism meant…and I realized it described a majority of Wyatt’s symptoms. Long story short, on the day of my graduation from the local community college, May 25, 2012, I got the call that my son was diagnosed with Autism and Cognitive & Adaptive Delays. After years of fighting and pushing for some answers, I was finally given a solid explanation and treatment options for my son.
For those of you who may not know about Autism, I’ll try and share what I can so that you will have a clearer picture in your mind about this increasingly common mental disorder. To begin, there are three terms thrown around a lot that are actually similar: Autism, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified). Autism is considered a spectrum disorder. This means that it has varying degrees of severity and symptom presentation; a child diagnosed with ASD falls on the spectrum in some capacity. Those diagnosed with PDD-NOS may have some characteristics of ASD, but mostly present with atypical symptoms that don’t fit into the ASD category.
What’s most important to know is that each and every child diagnosed with ASD, Autism, and/or PDD-NOS are unique. Each child presents with different symptoms in a varying degree of severity. Because of this, there is no set list of symptoms that qualify an ASD diagnosis, but there is a large list of ‘typical’ symptoms that a child MAY have to a varied degree. Typically, a child with ASD has little or no eye contact, obsessive interests, trouble with change, delayed speech and language skills, unusual reactions related to the senses (the way things smell, sound, taste, etc.), repetitive behaviors, prefers to play alone, may avoid personal contact, and has odd behaviors, also called stimming (i.e. slapping hands, skipping, runs in circles). Again, these are just a few of the ‘typical’ symptoms that you may see, but each child varies in the degree in which they have the symptom. Typical age of diagnosis is around 18 months and EARLY INTERVENTION is key in ensuring a functional life for the child. Things like speech and occupational therapy and ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) are important staples in the child’s life. Once the child is of school age, you’ll collaborate with teachers and administrators in creating an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which is a contract of sorts that sets goals and guidelines for your child that the teachers must follow in the classroom.
This may seem like a lot of information, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. This is why education is important for everyone. You may believe that you don’t have to know anything about Autism, ASD, and PDD-NOS because your child “doesn’t have it”. This may be so, but I can guarantee you or your child knows someone with one of these diagnoses. In 2010, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) states the prevalence of Autism at 1 in 68. You read that right folks, 1 in every 68 children are diagnosed with Autism. Boys have a higher prevalence of diagnosis (1 in 42) than girls (1 in 189), but these current numbers aren’t promising. In fact, just two years prior, the prevalence was 1 in 88. Just take a minute to let that digest…1 in 68…1 in 42 boys…1 in 189 girls. Autism is more common than you may have previously thought.
Yes, my son is one of those 42 boys diagnosed with Autism. There was no telltale sign at birth that this would happen. I didn’t do illegal drugs, drink, or smoke while pregnant. I went to all my prenatal appointments and exercised regularly. I did everything right yet my son is now 1 in 42. But, in our house, Autism doesn’t define my son. Wyatt is treated like any other 6 year-old boy: he’s expected to go to school, do his homework, do his chores, and have manners. Most of the time I’m told that Wyatt “doesn’t look autistic” and of course this is true because what does Autism look like? I ponder this question a lot and have yet to find an answer.
So, here is how Autism looks in my household: Wyatt has a strict weekday schedule that ensures he is in bed by 8PM so he can wake up for school in the morning. On the weekends, he’s free to do as he pleases. He loves watching movies and most of the time will watch the same movie 5-6 times before he’s ready to move on to another. I can recite all the Transformers movies verbatim I now know more about dinosaurs than I would have liked to. With the help of an amazing speech therapist, Wyatt can now carry a coherent conversation. I remember when he was little I used to pray that he would one day talk and now I find myself constantly telling him to be quiet. Wyatt likes to hum and skip/run around from time to time (it’s clear he’s not fully present when he does this). It’s now an endearing part of his personality and he has since been named our little hummingbird.
Wyatt is considered high functioning. This basically means he falls lower on the spectrum, so his symptoms aren’t as severe as they could be. Because of my earlier suspicions, my parents and I made a point to make Wyatt look us in the eyes and interact with others at the park. This is one reason why his diagnosis took so long: he has excellent eye contact and is very sociable. It’s still a little difficult at times: he’s currently in the process of being potty trained (thank you God!) and still has a meltdown very so often. He still gets stares when he has a meltdown in public and I’m told to either leave the establishment or control my child. I have to inform them that he is autistic and cannot be ‘controlled’ but rather be left to calm down and focus on something else. He is extremely picky with eating, so I have to find creative ways in sneaking fruits and vegetables into his meals. God forbid if you give him a piece of meat or take away his staple food: raisin toast.
Yes, Wyatt’s schedule takes up a bit of time and it’s hard to plan a day out until I know his mood, but this is my son. This is just a small piece of what makes him Wyatt. He’s hilarious, loves science, and can decently carry a tune. He’s called the animal whisperer because animals follow and love on him (he’s currently adopted two random ducks that visit our house daily), and he loves to play, be goofy, and just be a 6 year-old boy.
So, this is a small snapshot of my son’s life with Autism. His life isn’t over because of this label; it’s just a tad bit different. He may be autistic, he may be 1 in 42 boys, but to me, he’s Wyatt and I wouldn’t change him for the world.
For more information about Autism, please visit the following sites and spread awareness! Remember, early diagnosis and intervention is vital in providing a functional adult life for the child!!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Autism Association