Autism

Share it now

Autism in Children

Autism was first described in the 1940s, but the condition was poorly understood and little known until the 1990s. At first, autistic children were thought to suffer from schizophrenia or emotional trauma. Then, aloof and unloving "refrigerator mothers" were blamed for their children's odd behavior.

Now considered a spectrum disorder, autism ranges from its "classic" state to Asperger's Syndrome, characterized by social and communication difficulties but average to superior intelligence. Children with the disorder may exhibit repetitive behaviors as well, such as hand-flapping, head-banging or rocking back and forth. Those with classic autism generally don't speak, seem unaware of the outside world and often require institutionalization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism rates have climbed from about one in 2,500 children in the 1980s to between one and four in 500 today, but it's unclear whether the number of cases is rising or greater public awareness and broader diagnostic criteria have brought more cases to light.

Here are some other helpful resources for you to consider:

Autism: Why is it on the Rise?

by Ela Schwartz in the Long Island Press. Used by permission.

Luke Gilmore has come a long way in the past few years. The 5-year-old boy used to avoid eye contact and would spend his time staring out the window or racing distractedly around the house. Now he plays with other children and can even identify about 40 words by pointing them out to his teachers. But Luke's father, John Gilmore of Long Beach, says his son hasn't spoken a word since he was about a year old.

Luke has been diagnosed with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder whose causes remain unknown.

Gilmore believes Luke's autism was caused by mercury poisoning via three vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in childhood vaccines since the 1930s. In 1999, the U.S. Public Health Service recommended that manufacturers reduce thimerosal content from about 25 micrograms per shot to trace amounts, although older vaccines may still be on the market. But the government has not officially identified mercury as a cause of autism. Indeed, many medical professionals and even other parents like the Gilmores say the correlation isn't clear.

Luke's parents began noticing changes after his first vaccination, at the age of 2 months, when he developed eczema and asthma. After another round of vaccinations, at 8 months of age, Luke stopped making eye contact and would alternate between being "spacey and hyperactive," says Gilmore. At about 1 year, Luke got his third round of vaccines and "all hell broke loose," as his father puts it.

"He'd just bounce off the walls constantly, had gastrointestinal problems and his eczema was out of control," Gilmore remembers. "We knew something was really wrong. We'd seen three distinct changes in our son after three rounds of vaccines."

Gilmore is not alone in his belief that autism is a medically caused catastrophe. Many parents with autistic children have joined groups that seek to eliminate mercury from vaccines altogether. Gilmore is president of one such group-the New York Metro chapter of the National Autism Association. Others include the Coalition for SAFE MINDs (Sensible Action For Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders), No Mercury and Generation Rescue, all of whose members say their children were developing normally until regressing into the desolate world of autism between the ages of 2 and 7.

Their proactivity was rewarded this summer when Gov. George Pataki signed into law a bill limiting the use of thimerosal in vaccines for pregnant women and children. The bill was powered by Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg. A former educator, Weisenberg is familiar with the needs and issues facing children with physical and mental disabilities. Determined to improve the quality of life for disabled people and their families, he spearheaded the recently passed legislation that limits the amounts of thimerosal in vaccines given to children under 3 or pregnant women.

"Although there's no evidence thimerosal is the cause, we're aware mercury is toxic and poison, so why inject this into a child?" he says. But some parents say this isn't enough. They want thimerosal banned in all 50 states and financial compensation for what they consider to be injuries caused by vaccines.

"I have three children with autism, so clearly there's a genetic basis," says Michele Iallonardi of Hauppauge. "But I believe that my children would not have autism if they hadn't been exposed to thimerosal. Some people are genetically predisposed-their bodies don't have the ability to get rid of the thimerosal injected into them with their vaccines. My children are a perfect example."

Iallonardi says her eldest son, Jackson, 4, suffered developmental delays from early infancy, and because he had health problems, doctors recommended two dosages of the flu shot when he was 2 years old. "His behaviors got worse," she says, "and about a month later he was diagnosed with autism."

After that, Iallonardi stopped vaccinating her twins, Bennett and Luca, now 2, when they turned 3 months. She says their autism is not as severe as that of their sibling.

AUTISM ASCENDING

Autism was first described in the 1940s, but the condition was poorly understood and little known until the 1990s. At first, autistic children were thought to suffer from schizophrenia or emotional trauma. Then, aloof and unloving "refrigerator mothers" were blamed for their children's odd behavior.

Now considered a spectrum disorder, autism ranges from its "classic" state to Asperger's Syndrome, characterized by social and communication difficulties but average to superior intelligence. Children with the disorder may exhibit repetitive behaviors as well, such as hand-flapping, head-banging or rocking back and forth. Those with classic autism generally don't speak, seem unaware of the outside world and often require institutionalization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism rates have climbed from about one in 2,500 children in the 1980s to between one and four in 500 today, but it's unclear whether the number of cases is rising or greater public awareness and broader diagnostic criteria have brought more cases to light.

Densely populated Long Island has a high number of autistic children. May-Lynn Andresen, a registered nurse and the senior administrative manager at the Fay J. Lindner Center for Autism at North Shore-Long Island Jewish (NSLIJ) Health System in Bethpage, is the parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Based on stats provided by the CDC, Andresen estimates that there may be as many as 18,000 autistic children in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens. "Autism is a big issue for us here," she says.

EVIDENCE OF HARM

David Kirby, a Brooklyn-based journalist, first heard about the thimerosal theory in 2002. He was skeptical until learning that a rider tacked on to the Homeland Security Act-dubbed the "Eli Lilly Protection Act" after the primary manufacturer-absolved pharmaceutical companies from liability for damages caused by the vaccine additive. The rider was repealed in 2003.

Kirby chronicled the experiences of parents who formed the Coalition for SAFE MINDs in Evidence of Harm-Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. Published in April 2005, the book investigates claims that the FDA failed to total up the amounts of thimerosal in the increasing number of vaccines given to children and conduct safety studies, thus exposing children to amounts of thimerosal that far exceeded federal safety limits.

The book also alleges that the CDC manipulated data from the federal Vaccine Safety Database to eliminate a statistically significant link between thimerosal and autism, ADHD and speech delay, and that the CDC refused to disclose data and records until required to do so under the Freedom of Information Act. Kirby says government officials refused requests for interviews.

"I would have been willing to publish anything they had to say," he says, stressing that "evidence" of harm is not the same as "proof." People should reach their own conclusions after reading the book, in which Kirby does not take an anti-vaccine stance, he adds.

"If I had children, I would have them vaccinated," Kirby says. "Children can lose their sight or hearing, become disfigured, even die from these diseases."

Thanks to vaccinations, few of us recall the days when catching diseases such as diphtheria or measles was a childhood rite of passage. Smallpox has been eradicated; polio is rarely seen outside of the Third World. But when vaccination rates drop, diseases regain a foothold, as Japan, England and Sweden discovered when whooping cough and measles re-appeared after parents fearful of side effects stopped inoculating their children.

IN SEARCH OF ANSWERS

While there have been many studies aimed at unearthing the causes of autism, none has proven a link between the disorder and thimerosal. For the most part, the medical community attributes autism to genetic factors, and statistics do show a correlation. According to the CDC, if one child in a family has autism, the odds that a sibling will be affected increase significantly.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and independent researchers, who are trying to identify genes that could cause autistic symptoms, say these traits often run in families. That's something many parents of autistic children acknowledge, even as they insist there's more to blame for the condition than just chromosomes and genes.

Not everyone in the autism community believes that mercury's to blame. Many cite the fact that the CDC and other public health organizations conducted five major epidemiological (large-population) studies examining the health records of hundreds of thousands of children in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which pored over the data, those studies show no proof that autism is linked to thimerosal.

Proponents of the theory that thimerosal and autism are linked counter that the IOM failed to give equal weight to biological and toxicological laboratory studies showing the negative neurological effects of thimerosal.

"Autism could be caused by any number of factors, but the potential for thimerosal to be one of them is there, based on research done by qualified professionals," says Chris Petrosino, the parent of a son with autism and co-president of the Nassau/Suffolk chapter of the 500-members-strong Autism Society of America, which supported the legislation to remove thimerosal from vaccines.

Those on the other side of the fence say mercury-blaming parents are upset-seeing your child regress into autism is traumatic-but that emotion is no substitute for science and facts.

Retired Roslyn dentist Marvin Schissel is an adviser to the American Council on Science and Health and the National Council Against Health Fraud. His adult son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 25. Schissel sees no point in funding more thimerosal studies, since the preservative has been removed from most vaccines and studies have shown no concrete connection.

"Why keep wasting money and energy with this issue when we could be investigating other, more promising areas?" Schissel asks.

Marty Schwartzman, too, has his doubts about the thimerosal theory. The Bayside resident, president of the Long Island chapter of the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR), says his twins, Allyson and Robby, now 12, did not show signs of regression after receiving vaccinations.

"They were both delayed, but then, for some reason, Allyson took off," Schwartzman says. Now a typical seventh-grader, Allyson wants to work with autistic children when she grows up. Her brother has autism and attends the School for Language and Communi-cation Development in Glen Cove.

Schwartzman, however, considers himself open-minded and doesn't discount any potential links to the disorder that affects his son. "I go to a lot of presentations and read papers [about autism], and [many things] sound plausible, but I'm not a chemist and I don't understand the structure of cells," he says. "I think we need to explore the cause of autism to the fullest extent."

Those who do blame thimerosal are encouraged by new developments. The Los Angeles Times published a Merck company memo warning of the dangers of high mercury doses through increased immunizations. The memo was dated 1991, eight years before the FDA recommended that thimerosal be removed from vaccines.

In California, autism rates are dropping, in keeping with the prediction of lower rates after thimerosal's phase-out. The University of Texas found that school districts in environments with high mercury levels had the highest rates of special-education services, and that autism rates increased by 17 percent for every 1,000 pounds of mercury released. The emissions came from coal-burning plants, with Texas releasing more than any other state.

FUTURE FALLOUT

Autism affects more than the child diagnosed with it. Parents exhaust themselves trying to fill the child's needs. Siblings feel neglected. Financial and marital woes often set in because insurance seldom pays for expensive newer therapies and one parent may have to quit work to care for the child.

And our society is responsible for caring for a staggering number of autistic individuals. Robert Krakow, an attorney who represents vaccine-injury cases and is the father of a child with autism, is also chairman of the board of Lifespire, a not-for-profit organization that provides housing and services for 5,000 disabled adults in the New York City region. Krakow says that if you multiply the cost of special-education services for a child over several years, then add about $225,000 that's spent per year on each adult resident at an institution, the cost comes out to about $13 million to care for an autistic individual who requires housing and services over his or her lifetime.

Andresen says that huge numbers of developmentally disabled Long Island children need to be helped and supported, brought in to local school districts and protected from teasing and bullying. "Communities need to rally and provide opportunities for them to practice social skills in different environments and support them with jobs," she says. "We need to understand that it truly takes a village."

This article appears courtesy of the Long Island Press.

Share it now

Giving Autism a Voice

Share it now

TWO LONG ISLANDERS ADVANCE THEIR CAUSE

Giving Autism A Voice

By Ela Schwartz, Courtesy of the Long Island Press and is used by permission.

Oyster Bay resident Evelyn Ain's story is similar to those told by many parents who become well-acquainted with autism. Her son Matthew was a normal toddler, babbling, smiling and drinking out of a cup. When he was about 10 months old, he stopped talking and began withdrawing.

"He looked like he was in a fog," says Ain. "It got to the point where a stranger couldn't come into the house without Matthew freaking out."

Her son's pediatrician found nothing wrong. His neurologist measured Matthew's head and checked his reflexes. Evaluators sent by the Nassau County Health Department's Early Intervention Program said he might be "a little autistic," Ain says.

Neurologists told her they refused to diagnose autism before the age of 2, but Ain was determined to resolve once and for all whether or not Matthew had the disorder. She brought her son, then 18 months old, to the Kendell Speech and Language Center in Kendell, Fla., to be evaluated by a speech/language pathologist board-certified in behavioral analysis.

The Center confirmed Ain's suspicions and diagnosed Matthew with autism.

"I died right there," she says. "But I was able to come back to Long Island and get him the services he needed."

Concluding that many parents were looking for answers, support and empowerment, she launched Spectrum Magazine for Parents of Children With Autism and Developmental Disabilities in 2004. The magazine is now national, with a circulation of 60,000.

"Spectrum is a way to bring families together on a larger level and provide a community," Ain says. "Autism is nothing to be embarrassed about. Our families just have different lifestyles. We choose schools differently, travel differently, live differently."

In April this year, the magazine shed a spotlight on its national debut at the Garden City Hotel. Guests at the gala included Anthony Edwards, formerly of ER, and Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), who received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The publication has grown by leaps and bounds already: What began as a three-person operation in 2004 now employs about 25 people across the country. Ain looks forward to the magazine's continued growth.

"I'd love to see Spectrum go international and have a Spanish-language edition to reach Latin American communities," she says.

Cris Italia, editor-in-chief of Spectrum, says the magazine's mission is not just to keep parents of autistic children abreast of research and treatments. It's also to spark ideas about fun activities these parents can enjoy with their autistic youngsters. "We don't want to be all gloom and doom," Italia says. "We write about trips to take and games to play. We provide hope."

-Michele Pepe contributed to this story.

Courtesy of the Long Island Press and is used by permission.

Share it now

How Autism Affects the Family

Share it now

Dancing In The Dark

A Personal Story: How Autism Affects The Family

By Susan Harris. This article appears courtesy of The Long Island Press. All rights reserved.

It's been two years, two months since that devastating day in 2003 that I got my son Oliver's autism diagnosis. It sounds so clich├ęd, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I'm sure all of us parents of autistic children do. It's the day that your life changes forever. The day that your life takes a turn for the worse.

I was sitting in my car on a beautiful summer day in front of a Kinko's copy center. I had just made copies of my son's medical records, the first of many medical records I would have to copy. My cell phone rang and it was the social worker who I met at the hospital where my son had just been evaluated. She told me the doctor had a diagnosis, and that my suspicions were correct. Indeed my son had autism. I was devastated. There is no way to convey the pain that runs through your body. I don't even remember the car ride home. I just remember thinking our happy family's life was no longer going to be the same. Of course, at that moment in time, I had no idea just how true that statement would prove to be.

When I got home and told friends and family members about the diagnosis, everyone said the same thing: "God only gives you things you can handle." First of all, I'm not a religious person, so maybe God was punishing me for not being a big believer. Or was it that people tell you this because, really, what else could they say? Maybe they felt by offering that reassurance, it would make the situation a little better. Sort of like when it rains on your wedding day and everyone tells you it's good luck. (By the way, it poured on my wedding day, like a monsoon, so by those standards I should've had 100 years of good luck.)

Well, no such luck, now that we have autism in our lives. For those of you who do not know what autism is, or do not know an autistic person, you soon will. Autism is a complex disorder that affects the socialization and communication centers of the brain. More alarming, it affects one in 166 children a year, according to the organization Autism Speaks, which is up from five years ago, when it affected one in 500 children. That means that 67 children are diagnosed a day, almost three children are diagnosed each hour and 2,000 children diagnosed each month. In the United Kingdom, the number is now 1 in 150. Ours should catch up shortly. The rate of this epidemic's increase is alarming.

Experts do not know what causes it, or why it is on the increase. What is known, however, is how devastating it is to the family.

THE MARRIAGE

What happens to the family unit when autism enters it is as unbelievable as the diagnosis itself. Everything you know to be true is tested-marriages, siblings' lives, finances, living with your own thoughts, and friendships, to name a few.

Seventy-five to 80 percent of marriages of parents with autistic children fail. That is a huge percentage.

In my own marriage, the diagnosis, at first, brought us closer together. But then important decisions had to be made, and that was the hard part. Spouses don't necessarily agree. So you fight, and the fights become more vicious than any fight you ever had because the outcome of your child's well-being depends on your decisions. I can't even remember what we fought about before the diagnosis. I'm sure it was insignificant and trivial. Now we have these fights that get so intense they scare me, and they sadden me. Unfortunately, they are now very much a part of our lives, as much as the autism.

Oliver, now 4, was diagnosed at 17 months old. At 9 months, I had my suspicions. At 12 months I addressed them to my pediatrician who did not want to "put a label on it." Finally, at Oliver's 15-month check up, I said to my pediatrician, "I'm telling you something is not right with my child. And, although I didn't go to medical school and I do not have a fancy diploma hanging on my wall, my gut feeling is, something is wrong." Only when I said this did he acquiesce: "Okay," he said. "Let's go see a child neurologist."

One of the reasons I had my son evaluated for autism was that my oldest son, Matthew, then 9, kept asking me, "Why doesn't Oliver like me, Mom?"

And, I would say, "Of course he likes you, honey. He's just new to us and we are new to him. Don't worry, before you know it, Oliver will be getting in your way, and you'll be saying. 'Mom, Oliver is bothering me.' And, I'll say, 'Honey, he just loves you and wants to be with you.'"

Well, that scenario never played out. Oliver never lit up like children usually do when older siblings entered the room. In fact, he didn't notice anybody at all when they entered the room. It's very hard on my children when they go to play with Oliver and he's just not interested.

What's also very difficult for the siblings of autistic children is that they see how hard these autistic children work. My son puts in a full day of school and four hours of therapy after school. He starts at 9 a.m. and finishes at 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. He puts in a 40-hour work week. There is no time for play dates. It's all work and no play.

Oliver used to have therapy on the weekend as well. He'd have between two and four hours on Saturday and a maximum of two on Sunday. We stopped the weekend therapy for two reasons: (1) it's expensive, and (2) therapists are very hard to come by, especially on the weekends. Autism can burn you out quickly. The therapists do need some sort of mental escape, so most of them take the weekends off. Keep in mind, this job is very mentally and physically intense-these therapists get banged up pretty bad sometimes. They get hit, scratched and bitten. Jessie, a former therapist of ours, had her nose broken by an autistic child who head-banged her.

So now, on weekends we try to do things like go to a movie, a zoo, an aquarium, or visit family and friends. At one point Oliver had a socialization class on Sundays, and now he is taking swimming lessons that day.

THE SIBLINGS

Siblings see the stress that the parents go through. They see and hear the fights. They know what life used to be like, and they know it's not like that anymore. They also feel neglected. Mommy and Daddy used to be there for them, and now, because autism is a full-time job, the parents devote their time to the child who is autistic. That's a hard lesson for the other children to learn.

Oliver having autism has definitely affected my other children. I know that it upsets the both of them, but they try to be brave for my sake.

Matthew, now 12, won't talk about it with me, but I recently found out from a friend of mine that he discusses it with her, which I'm glad he feels comfortable doing. I just wish it were with me. Neither of my two kids have any interest in going to a sibling support group, even though I think it would be a tremendous help to them. They are adamant about not going, and I have to respect that.

In Matthew's school they do a school-wide project, "Pay it Forward," where they have to do something to benefit the community. Matthew started a school chapter of Autism Speaks, where he is supporting autism awareness as well as trying to raise money to help the cause.

Danielle, now 8, is amazing with Oliver. She has become a little special-education teacher to him. She observes him with his home therapists, and then practices what they preach. If she comes into a room and says, "Hi, Oliver," and he doesn't respond to her, she will repeat it a few more times. If he still doesn't respond and happens to be watching TV or looking at a book, she will turn off the TV or take the book away from him and say, "Oliver," I said 'Hello' to you-what do you say?'" And, then he will say, "Hi, Danielle." She doesn't take any crap from him. She is patient, but very firm. She has told me that she wants to be a special-education teacher, which she would be so wonderful at.

But one thing that deeply bothers me about Danielle's situation is that for her there is no escape from autism. She has it at home, but she looks for it at her school. Apparently, this year they have special-needs kids mainstreamed at her school and she constantly observes them and then comes home and tells me about their behaviors. I don't want her to be obsessed with this. She should have some sort of a carefree childhood, and obviously she cannot escape it at home, but I would like her to escape it at school.

For me, the most painful thing was to hear from Matthew that he wished he were the one to be affected by autism. It's not uncommon to get responses like that. I heard from parents that their children with autistic siblings wished they were an only child. Of course, typical children say that of their typical siblings. It's just sad to know that in this case, because they see the hardships that arrive with autism, these siblings really do mean it.

THE COST

Autism is incredibly expensive. I knew this fact when I set out to write this article, but, ironically, it was only when I started writing this piece that I began to realize how much money we spend out-of-pocket to pay for Oliver's services. Our state and local governments pay for the autistic child's education, as well as certain therapies that they think the child deserves. Of course, they only provide the child with a minimum of therapies, and a minimum of time. It is up to the families to supplement the other therapies, or the amount of therapy. This is where it gets costly. The families pay for extra physical, speech, OT (occupational therapy) and ABA (applied behavioral analysis), just to name a few of the types of therapies. Therapists get anywhere from $35 to $150 an hour, depending on their experience.

We built a Sensory Room in our basement, which cost about $10,000. It is filled with things like a ball pit, trampoline, mats and swings. All these things help autistic children focus. Sensory input is as important to autistic children as anything else.

Then there are babysitters. Although Oliver is in therapy and school all day, I have to hire babysitters to help with my other children to make sure they get off the school bus. This gets to be expensive, even at $15 an hour.

Special diets are something parents of autistic kids believe in. Some, for example, go on a GFWF diet-gluten-free, wheat-free diet. The ingredients are hard to come by, and you have to shop at specialty stores. The food is expensive and you have to make a lot of meals from scratch and that is also time consuming. I know a group of people in my town who make a pilgrimage to the Catskill area around Passover. They go to the Hassidic communities to buy pareve, or kosher, foods.

There are many services autistic children require. Some include art therapy, music therapy, chiropractic cranial sacral therapy (scalp massages), the Pegasus horse-riding program, karate and floor time, in addition to the typical therapies. On an average week, we spend $550 out of pocket just for our son's ABA therapy. Oliver's developmental psychologist alone gets $150 an hour. That is about $30,000 for therapy a year just so our son can potentially lead a somewhat normal life. None of these therapies are covered by insurance. And, with all the time and money spent on these therapies, unfortunately, there are no guarantees.

You do it all, and you kill yourself doing it, because in the end you can say, "At least we tried everything."

IN YOUR OWN HEAD

You beat yourself up along the entire journey. In my own scenario, I drive my child to school every day because I cannot bear to put my nonverbal 4-year-old on a bus. My commute each way is 50 minutes long. I do a lot of thinking on that car ride because, after all, my child cannot talk to me.

I make that trip four times a day. I am in that car a minimum of four hours a day where I have long one-way conversations with Oliver as we commute back and forth from home to school to therapies to home again.

The car routine is practically the same every day. We see school buses, so we say, "school bus." We live in horse country, so every day we say, "Hello, horsie" and I ask, "What does a horse say?" and Oliver neighs. He notices the stables and now says, "barns," and I ask him what the horses eat.

When we get to Matthew's school, I point out to Oliver that it is where Matthew goes to school. Once we are on the highway we take notice of the trucks, and the different colors of cars. We talk about the weather if it is rainy, or very sunny, etc. Oliver may ask me for something like juice or a book or some music that he wants to hear, but that is the extent of our conversation. I do the talking; he listens but he doesn't say much. It's hard to keep the dialogue going when the other person doesn't talk. Imagine you are sitting in a car with a person who speaks only Russian. You have little or no knowledge of the Russian language and he has just a little English at his disposal. At some point there can only be silence. So you zone out and you are left with what's on the radio or your own thoughts-which can get very ugly sometimes.

During those long commutes, all I have are my thoughts. So, I question every little thing that we do for our autistic child and our other children. I say things to myself like, "Would it have been better if he was born typical, but got cancer? Yes, there is that chance that he could die, but at least cancer is charted territory. There is a chance of a cure. And, more importantly, you have your child. Not just a shell of a child. At least with cancer, you have verbalization, you have a personality, you have a child who wants to be mothered, who cares if you are in a room with them or not." It's sheer heartbreak.

Eustacia Cutler is the mother of Temple Grandin, an accomplished, successful adult with autism. I think she said it best in her book, A Thorn In My Side: "A baby needs a mother to know she's a baby. But, a mother needs a baby to know she's a mother." I feel so cheated at times. I go through life looking at my child all the time, thinking: "When will he respond to something, anything, to get that look on his face that just says, 'I've just been to Disneyworld?'" Unfortunately, those looks come so far and few between.

Autism is a steep learning curve. You learn about the disorder, and all the new vocabulary that comes with it. You learn to deal with your emotions. You learn to talk to your child who does not speak the same language as you. You learn to deal with autism because you have to. You either sink or swim. You learn how to deal with your spouse and your other children. But you also learn who your true friends are. When autism enters your life, relationships are tested. Friends who you thought would be there for you, you'll find, are unable to deal with autism. I've had friends who said they'd stick it out with me, but soon began treating autism like it was contagious, like it was leprosy. I had a friend who insisted that she drive my daughter to a gymnastics class with her daughter and then accused me of taking advantage of the situation, even though I never asked her for this favor.

Then there are the friends who can't understand that you no longer have time to socialize with them, not because you don't want to (because God knows you need them more than ever), but because you don't have the time like you used to before autism. But the friends who stick it out, who listen to the tears, are amazing. And I have made some incredible friendships with people who are in the same boat, and that has helped me immensely.

BETTER DAYS

I started this article off by saying the day you get your autism diagnosis is the day your life changes for the worse, not for the better. It took me months to write this article; mainly, for the lack of time in my day. But also, I just couldn't finish it. It became too painful. For the record, it's now been over two years since I've gotten my son's autism diagnosis, and I can honestly say, I now feel the best I have since that dreadful day.

There is a grieving process. I'm sure it's not the same for us all. For me, it took a while to get on with my life again. I no longer feel that my life has changed for the worse. I feel it has changed for the better. I love all my children the same, but I feel such incredible unique love for my son with autism. There isn't a moment that I'm not telling him how much I love him. Or how lucky I am to have him as my son.

Oliver is an adorable little 4-year-old, with a most special smile. He is so loving, and actually craves to be hugged and kissed. Thank God for that, because a lot of these kids cannot stand to be touched. It is as if they were being stabbed. Can you imagine a new parent who wants to cuddle their newborn and their child actually pushes them away? It's devastating.

Oliver is very bright, but lacks language and socialization skills to make him like a typical little boy. He is very hyper and cannot sit for more than a minute. He is so very happy and that makes me happy. He loves trains. Wrong. He is fascinated by them.

He constantly "labels" items like foods, vehicles, clothing, toys, etc., referring to them out loud by name. He only has two sentences: "I want..." and "Can I have...?" He has also learned to sight read, even though he doesn't have communication skills. Although he cannot have a conversation with you, he has memorized TV shows that he watches and can recite them back to you word for word. This is called scripting. He also talks to his hands as though they were puppets. Weirdly enough, he sometimes has to be prompted to say "Hello" or "Bye" to a person, but quite often I hear him saying goodbye or hello to inanimate objects. "Bye, puzzle," "Bye, snowflake," "Bye, chair."

That labeling and repeating and other aspects of Oliver not being able to verbalize can have serious repercussions. When he's ill, for example, he cannot tell me. I have to be intuitive. It is very difficult with a sick autistic child who has a fever, but does not have the vocabulary to tell you what hurts. It's very frustrating. I say, "Oliver, do your ears hurt?" and he repeats, "Ears hurt." "Does your throat hurt?" He repeats, "Throat hurt." I say, "Do you like rusty nails?" and he says, "Rusty nails."

A sore throat or ear infection is bad enough, but I'm nervous about appendicitis with Oliver. It is hereditary-both Danielle and my grandmother had it. It has been known that autistic kids die from appendicitis because they don't have the vocabulary to say "stomach," or be more specific to show where they hurt.

It took a while to get here, but the important thing is that I'm here. I have learned to love the quirky behavior that comes with autism. When Oliver drew on my wall in my home's front entrance, I could have had hired someone to replace that wallpaper. Instead, I decided to put a frame around it. After all, it's my son's artwork and I don't get much of that type of thing, because unlike typical preschools, for Oliver, it is all work and no play.

Someone once told me when I was planning my wedding, "Don't worry if the ceiling falls down, just dance around it." Well, I think I'm finally dancing.

This article appears courtesy of The Long Island Press. All rights reserved.

Share it now