Thursday, June 30, 2011

Early Days of Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that, at first, can be difficult for a parent to recognize. Sometimes there are subtle differences in a child that the parents may not notice and sometimes there are dramatic, sweeping changes that take place and can be alarming to behold. This is an account of the differences between my son when I first started noticing that things were different about him, when he first got diagnosed with autism, and finally, how he is doing now that he is almost a teenager.

Brandon, birth to 1 year
Brandon was born a normal, happy baby. A little on the smallish side but full-term, nonetheless. He was smiling most of the time and giggly and gave me almost no problems as far as sleep patterns go. He only cried when he was hungry, needed a diaper change or for some reason, was in pain. The "perfect" baby. Brandon still continued to be happy after he had turned a year old. Back then I had a nurse from our local W.I.C. (Women, Infants and Children) office come by and give Brandon a 1-year evaluation to see how he was developing. She seemed rather pleased with his progress except she noted that it was strange that he wasn't trying to speak yet. He had just turned 1-year old though so she kind of shrugged it off and said "Well, maybe he's just concentrating on all of this other new stuff like learning how to walk and he'll catch up in a month or two." But his "catching up" never came. He learned about 10 words total at that age I think, not much more.

Autism at 1 Year Checklist:

* Little or no eye contact
* Using gibberish and nonsense sounds more than words
* Focusing on part of a toy rather than the toy as a whole
* Does things to soothe himself like rocking, chanting or bouncing for long periods of time

Brandon, 3 years
When Brandon turned 3 years old and had a check up with his pediatrician, I definitely noticed the differences between him and other children his age. These children were talking in full sentences and Brandon was still using gibberish and a strange sing-songy voice with words that no one else understood. I told his doctor "He's not talking right, he's 3 years old and mostly just points at things to get what he wants or just goes and gets them himself." The doctor told me not to worry about it too much. He'd probably catch up when he got into Kindergarten. I, being a first time mother and taking the doctor at his word because, after all, he was the professional; listened to him even though my motherly instincts were screaming at me to look into it further. But both his doctor, and my mother, who had raised not only me but my two brothers as well, didn't seem to think that Brandon's delays were that big of a problem. So, I took them at their word and let things go a couple of more years to see what would happen.

His sleep patterns were messed up by this time too. Brandon would stay up in bed, bouncing on his knees from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m. and finally settle down to sleep at around 4 a.m. I had to be up at 5 a.m. to go to work, I was exhausted. When I brought Brandon home from my mom's house after work, he would pass out in the floor asleep wherever he was standing at the time. He could be in the kitchen floor, the living room, halfway on the couch and halfway off. Whenever he felt tired he would just lay down.

Autism at 3 Years Checklist:

* Still using lots of gibberish instead of real words most of the time
* Obsessively lining objects and toys up in rows instead of playing with them appropriately
* Has a disturbance in his sleep patterns and can seem to fall asleep instantly when tired
* Little or no eye contact or one-on-one communication

Brandon, Kindergarten and Beyond
After I had registered Brandon for Kindergarten and went to the orientation, things got really bad. The other kids were all outside with the aides playing on the playground while the parents were inside talking to the teacher. The aides came inside several times to get me so that I could make my son stop doing things he wasn't supposed to do. Brandon kept throwing the woodchips on the playground floor up into the air and they would fall on the other kids. Then he would get in the other kids' faces and invade their personal space. He would jump off of things he wasn't supposed to jump off of and he started crying hysterically when the aides asked him to stop, he wanted his mommy.

I brought these concerns up with his teacher and she refered me to The Early Childhood Center where he was evaluated by a psychiatrist who determined that Brandon was autistic. Brandon never did go to Kindergarten. He went to the Early Childhood Center, which was a pre-school, for a year and then he was enrolled in a special school that was just for autistic kids called The Illinois Center for Autism. He's been there ever since and is now 12 years old. Brandon is talking in full sentences now, although he still refers to himself in third-person a lot of the time. He asks questions, and makes eye contact and tells me about things that went on in his day; even though he does this in his own way and whenever he feels like it, not when someone asks him.

Autism at 5 Years Checklist:

* Still little or no one-on-one communication or eye contact
* Does strange things like flap his arms or flick his fingers in front of his face
* Points to what he wants or uses other people as "tools" to get things instead of using words to ask for them
* Does not understand the concept of danger and may dart away or wander off unexpectedly

To this day, Brandon still has trouble getting to sleep at night, but it's a problem that almost all autistic people have. One of the doctors that Brandon had seen recommended that I give him 1 mg. or less of melatonin to remedy this problem. He still has trouble figuring out what personal space is and will get right up into a stranger's face, then he doesn't understand why the stranger looks at him funny or gets angry at him. For the most part though, there have been great strides of improvement in Brandon. He can carry on a conversation in his own way that is rather one-sided, but I'd rather hear him talk about whatever is on his mind then the pointing and grunting that he used to do. He can ask me questions and will now answer questions that I ask him. He still doesn't understand the concept of danger but is still being trained everyday about "rules" that he has to follow. This just goes to show you that autism can get better with the proper training and a little time. I expect there will be many more improvements in Brandon's life to look forward to. There is always hope for an autistic person.

It is a challenging thing to have an autistic child, but my child is special and wonderful and I love him for who he is, not who anyone else would want him to be. More About Brandon and Autism

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