By Julia Connolly
Fifteen years ago today, 15 years ago right now, I learned my son has autism.
For months, I’d explained his behavior away, telling myself he didn’t respond to me because he was hard of hearing, he flapped his arms constantly because he was excited, and besides, lots of kids don’t talk until they’re 3 … right?
His doctor suggested I take him for a hearing test, referring me to the Arnold Palmer Child Development Center. They found his hearing was perfect, but they wanted to observe him and had a few questions for me. They tallied my answers and gave me the news: “Your son falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. I’d never even heard of autism before. They explained, and the words stung my ears … severe developmental delays … lack of sensory awareness … repetitive behaviors … possibly non-verbal … I’d walked into the building thinking my son might have a minor hearing problem and walked out into an alien world where I didn’t know the language and nothing made sense.
On the way to the car, I was steering his stroller with one hand and balancing a large packet of information in the other. When I got us strapped in I quickly scanned the subtitles: Diagnoses, Early Intervention, Resources … there were no sections titled Cure.
I drove home through the impossibly blue-skyed Florida spring in a daze. At every stoplight I looked for good news in the packet of information. There wasn’t any.
When we got home my husband was on the phone—an international business call that couldn’t be interrupted. I held my tears and studied the information, waiting for him to finish the call.
He hung up and walked into the room, asking “How did it go?” I took a deep breath and patted the couch next to me. He sat down and I began giving him the life-altering report.
Afterward, we held each other for a long time, until I had to collect my older son from school. We untangled and I left to join the parent pick-up line.
When I got home we tidied the house because my out-of-town cousin was coming for a visit that evening. So began the next chapter of our lives.
The horror of that day 15 years ago is still with me, but the pain is not. Our son is now a strapping 17-year-old, a star Special Olympics athlete, the joy of our lives.
We’ve lived through broken furniture, being told he’d never speak, years of never daring to visit a store or restaurant (especially after he threw a glass bottle of ketchup at another diner), screaming meltdowns, running away from home, horrific plane rides, sleepless nights.
He doesn’t do those things anymore. In fact, he’s often singled out for his excellent behavior. He helps around the house, writes letters, sings along with nearly any song, has developed real friendships and gives the best hugs.
He also speaks. Sometimes we have to ask him to repeat a word, but we’re now able to carry on real conversations with him.
His progress is the result of the work and love of dozens of teachers, camp counselors, coaches, volunteers, family and friends. Yes, it does take a village to raise a child.
This anniversary, while marking a horrible day in our lives, is a joyous one. Celebrate!
Want more community? Little sister-siren Delaney Rose has been doing autism advocacy for years. She has a community blog where people contribute memes to capture, communicate, and share their experiences with autism, Autistic Kitten. She’s getting her masters in information technologies with a specialty in services for autistic people and their families.