It’s Autism. After years of doctors saying, “He’s a boy, he’ll catch up,” and meeting baseline criteria for development, you have a diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder.
In your heart, you knew it all along. There was just something different about him as a baby. Something more than the delayed walking and feeding. He was easy. He could sit and play for long periods of time and not go anywhere. He cried when you sang sad songs. He feels things deeply but doesn’t seem to know how to process his feelings in “normal” ways.
By the time he was almost three, it was clear. He started biting his hand when excited. He began swinging his legs back and forth. He was physically aggressive without meaning to be. He wanted to touch and put his mouth on others. He couldn’t play reciprocally with his sister. He destroyed all her buildings and toy set-ups. He didn’t know how to ask her to play.
But still, he had a great vocabulary. He loved pretending and playing with dolls and action figures. He played with them appropriately. He loved costumes and dressing up. But then he became obsessive about Star Wars, which you could justify, as lots of kids are obsessive about Darth Vader or Star Wars. But he was also fascinated by ancient Egypt and images of the Buddha. You wondered whether he tried to talk to the other 4-year-olds in his preschool about sarcophagus. His teacher confirmed that he did. He spoke to the Buddha statue as if he was a friend after he was given one as a gift. He was a whiz at puzzles and building symmetrical designs with blocks, but he couldn’t hold a crayon or a pencil properly.
As he grew older, his tantrums got worse and not better. It’s one thing for a 3-year-old to melt down in a store but something else to see a big 6-year-old throw himself to the ground or destroy a beloved Lego project. It’s distressing and embarrassing.
But maybe it’s ADHD or just anxiety, you thought. Many times you could take him to a playground, and he would find a friend or two and run around like a “normal kid” until he didn’t. Until you are chatting with a mom and another mom comes up and says, “Is this your son? He bit my son on the slide.” She lifts his shirt to show a welt on his back. You fight back the tears of shame. You get so mad at your son. How could you be raising someone that would do that?
But he didn’t understand. Not really. He cried and said he was sorry, but you weren’t sure if he understood why he was being yanked from the playground. Maybe he was only sorry for the consequence and didn’t really understand the impact of his action. Because the action was not intentional. He bit because he was excited to be playing with someone on the slide. He liked the way the boy’s shirt felt on his mouth and he bit down. He wasn’t doing it to hurt him; quite the opposite.
And then you realize: this is not something that he can control right now. So you need to supervise all of his interactions and limit them as well. This is exhausting. But maybe it’s a sensory processing issue. Maybe it’s PANDAS. Maybe it’s sleep apnea. Maybe.
But it’s high functioning Autism. And it doesn’t capture the incredible sensitivity of his little soul. It doesn’t capture how much he loves his mama and his sisters and his daddy. Autism is just one part of who he is, and you can say it now with certainty. Maybe it’s what you were most afraid of, but it’s what you’ve got to work with. He is not Autism, but Autism is part of him. And he is part of you.