Retrospectively speaking…

25 Mar

This morning I indulged in a bit of retrospection.  I was looking back at the day, almost three years ago, when a doctor broke the news to Gerard and I that our son had autism.  I remember that moment with such sharp clarity that just thinking about it brings back that stab of pain to my heart.  As I sat in the chair in the doctor’s office, I could almost feel the physical force of my world crumbling; I am convinced that the odd buzzing sound I heard was the sound of my expectations shattering.  In that instant I learned that the phrase “to have a weight on one’s shoulders” is not merely metaphorical: I actually felt a physical weight being placed on my shoulders.

The next half-hour or so was intensely painful.  Gerard and I sat and listened as the doctor told us his prognosis for George.  He may never talk, the doctor said.  He has very limited capacity for learning, and as he gets older the gap between him and his peers will get wider and wider.  He will always have severe cognitive delays, he will not be able to function in the world of “normal” people without constant care and supervision.  He probably won’t complete high school; as an adult he may hold down a very basic job but he won’t actually have a career.  We, the parents, were advised to prepare ourselves for a lifetime of intense hands-on parenting.  It all sounded so hopeless, as if George was doomed to a lifetime of misery.

Once the disabling shock and desperation had worn off, I made a decision.  The doctor would be wrong.  I accepted that George might always be different to other people of his age, but we would do whatever it took to help George reach his full potential, whatever that might be.  I was not going to let the well-meaning but pessimistic doctor dictate what George would or would not accomplish.  I would become an advocate for George, I would learn as much as I could about autism, I would give him whatever opportunities were feasible.

And so the hard work began.  My first mission – on the advice of his speech therapist – was to teach him to point.  It was explained to me that pointing is a crucial precursor to basic speech.  Babies point before they can talk; pointing is a very simple, basic, and effective form of communication.  Most kids learn how to point intuitively; children with autism need to be taught.  And so I taught.  Every evening for nine months, I would sit with George and a variety of books, painstakingly pointing to this thing or that thing, using hand-over-hand assistance to help him point.  Prompting, reinforcing, encouraging, never giving up.  There were days when it seemed as if I was getting nowhere.

Are there words in the English language that can describe the immense, overwhelming emotion I felt on the night when George hesitantly, almost shyly, lifted up his tiny hand, formed it into the shape of a point, and with his index finger touched a picture of Bob the Builder in the book we were looking at?  The memory alone makes my eyes go misty.

Since that day, there have been many accomplishments.  George still doesn’t talk a lot, but he makes requests using full sentences.  He even says please.  In recent weeks, he has tentatively entered the world of imaginative play by pretending to be a turtle.  He can read, he can spell out full sentences using his alphabetic fridge magnets.  He counts to a hundred and beyond, and he is learning to do sums using the big wooden abacus that a relative bought for him.  He finds what he wants on the computer without assistance, even typing his own search strings into Google and Youtube.  He has unique but effective problem-solving techniques.  The teachers and therapists who work with him are united in their opinion that George is a very smart kid.  When it comes to numbers, he outperforms typical kids of his age.

There are challenges, of course.  There are the tantrums, the autistic meltdowns, that originate from things I cannot always identify.  There is his refusal to try foods he has never seen, his phobia of doctors, the fact that I have to cut his hair and his nails while he is sleeping to avoid a panic-induced meltdown.  There are the sleep problems that plague us from time to time, especially when there has been a change in routine.  There is his heartbreaking frustration when he tries to express something to us but does not know how to.  There are the times when I have to spend over an hour physically restraining him from banging his head on the wall or the floor.  There are the persistent social communication delays and his anxiety in big groups of unfamiliar people.

Yes, there are a lot of challenges, a lot of days when I want to tear my hair out.  But that doctor was wrong, damn it!  I wish I had the opportunity to tell him so.  I honestly believe that he would be very happy to know that in this particular case, he was wrong.

George is loaded with potential.  I have no doubt that as an adult, he will be one of many autistic people making a truly valuable contribution to society.  It is truly my honour to be running for him and for people like him.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: