Commentary

May 3, 2012

Parent of autistic child asks ‘why not?’

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Commentary by Jessica Turner
Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — I was truly speechless the moment after his delivery. It was within those first 60 seconds when he was placed on my chest that my world completely changed.

Children define the phrase “life altering.” They bring love, panic, laughter, tears, distraction, frustration and every stray animal in the neighborhood, while we pray they teach us the patience to remain calm when they clog the toilet with an entire roll of paper or their sibling’s favorite toy.

When my second boy was born within three years, I prepared for the transition from a nursery to kiddy boot camp. Raised as an only child, I had no idea of the parental ride awaiting.

Although I was overwhelmed as a new mother, the boys seemed to develop on schedule – playing, eating, smiling and depriving me of sleep. Moments of personal peace now only took place during four-minute showers and the quiet ride to the day care center to pick them up at the end of the day.

Almost two years into what had seemed like a normal parenting experience, things began to drastically change. I started to notice my oldest son react differently to people and noises, throw tantrums and lose what small conversation he had begun. I’d hoped it was just the traits of terrible-twos beginning a few months early. But as time progressed, his physical behavior and emotional stability digressed.

For a year he would projectile vomit several times a week; throw himself on the ground in a violent tantrum without reason; avoided speaking, eye contact or affection; and played alone if he, in fact, played at all. Only the truly obvious signs bothered me, but doctors explained away the vomiting as gastrointestinal dysfunction and said it would pass. When he was around 4 years old it finally passed, but soon his often violent reactions and behavior kept him out of day cares and created a tremendous concern in our family. I began to lose faith.

It wasn’t until he was 4, when a blessing, who was his pre-school teacher, suggested I have him tested for autism. I instantly thought, ‘no way is my son like Rainman!’ After being on a six-month waiting list to consult with an autism specialist, four three-hour testing sessions and numerous questionnaires and counseling sessions, my son’s behavior now had a name – Asperger’s syndrome, which is part of the autism spectrum disorders.

The clinical definition is “a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others.” But what made more sense to me were the symptoms – mild digestive issues; few facial expressions; lack of eye contact; lack of empathy and sensitivity to others’ feelings; difficulty or inability to “read” other people or understand humor; poor coordination; and intense obsessions with specific subjects, like baseball statistics or U.S. presidents. No, my son is not a strange oddity who doesn’t know how to laugh and dance, or likes to memorize the dictionary, but simply a kid whose brain coordinates information unlike most.

After my emotions settled, my quest began. How do I “fix it?” I wanted my son to just “get better,” like getting over a skinned knee, a stomach ache or the common cold. I wanted him to play with his brother and other kids, feel comfortable enough to hug me again, tell me what he was feeling or thinking and come with us on family outings and not feel threatened or nervous. I simply kept thinking, “why us?”

After many nights of research, “liking” every autism awareness page on Facebook and developing an addiction to Google searches, I discovered many famous and intelligent people were thought to have or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. The list includes President Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. Rest assured this gave me no comfort or did it silence my frustrations; however, it provided me some faith that we may not cure this, but we can work with it.

He is currently 9 years old and although he obsesses about being 19, he also finds interest in things that never cease to amuse me. I often share our personal journeys on my Facebook page, like the day I came home from work to find him in nothing but jeans and Chuck Taylors, with marker drawings covering him from his face to belly button. I could not help but laugh when he said he was the rapper Lil’ Wayne and asked when he could get platinum teeth. That phase lasted for months and it created an addiction to rap and R&B music.

Now, when he listens to the radio, he can easily tell you almost every artist in the industry, to include what day they were born. He can also tell you most presidents’ birthdates and the terms they served; will only play specific video games; read the same books; and play with the same action figures for weeks at a time. Also very common to Asperger’s is asking repetitive questions when he already knows the answer, and, because of a common sensory issue in autistic people, he is only comfortable in wearing certain clothing and having his hair cut a certain way. I’m fairly sure he’ll try to use that excuse as a teenager too!

With time, some therapy and medication to help him cope, he is able to hug again, tell me what’s on his mind and find some peace when traveling and being in smaller crowds. Although I still answer repetitive questions from him and remind him when we’re in public that he’s not on stage at a rap concert, my faith is finally restored.

I no longer ask ‘why us?’ but instead ‘why not?’ Just like any other child, he still dreams of the future. Currently it’s a tossup between joining the military, becoming a brain surgeon or a famous rap star – although I’m thinking why not president of the United States. Anything he desires will be fine with me, as I will continue to not treat him any differently, or ever hold back the endless opportunities of my gifted child.




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