My son is just about to turn twelve and has never spoken a word. He has autism, but it differs from how many people perceive autism to be. For us, he is unique, but his actions have become pretty much routine around our house. Many things that I could have never imagined in my life have all just become a part of it.
I say this because the things he does today are all part of who he is. I don’t think of autism when I see Lucas do them. I think of Lucas. This stretches across a spectrum of behaviors. The behaviors are no longer signs. They are part of his personality.
When he was a baby, I kept an eye out for the spinning. That was supposedly the red flag. If he spins tops and plates like the kid in the movie they showed me in 1993 Health Class, then he has autism.
He never spun a plate.
He had autism.
For those looking to know why I suspected autism, the easy answer is that he never spoke and was delayed in a lot of his development. When your kid is non-verbal, the words are usually the overlying notification. However, there were other signs.
In fact, sometimes developmental achievements that matched up to “milestone” timers turned themselves into a cause for concern. One of the first things Lucas learned was how to clap. It was exceptionally early and I can remember how we all clapped along cheering. Hooray! Clap.
And he did. He clapped and clapped and clapped. It would get louder and more deliberate. You’d hear it echo through the incredibly tall ceiling in the stairwell. It became part of his routine when stimming to a toy or show. Many things followed patterns that all involved clapping as loud as he could at a certain point.
One of the most prominent toys that involved clapping was the Jack-in-the-Box app on my iPad. You’d scroll through different digital boxes, “spin” the lever, and wait for an animal to pop out. If you tapped the animal, it would make its signature noise.
For Lucas, the chain of events went like this: Swipe, Spin, Tap For Sound…CLAP!
This game was one of his favorites and trying to stop him from doing it could be a struggle. I had no choice but to let him have it on a plane once, as we were landing. The man next to me asked if the clap was a part of the game. It led to a long discussion about autism that I still think about fondly to this day. When we landed and I stood up, people around us were asking me questions too.
That’s a big lesson to take from things too. If you’re reading this because you’re worried your child might have autism, know that many of the horror stories about rude people are less prevalent than the kind ones. I think it’s important for people to see me trying to manage his impulses rather than letting him run free. A few call-outs, while someone is eating lunch at a diner, are OK. Dipping his hand into their mashed potatoes isn’t. That’s the difference.
Full disclosure, my guy’s had him some stranger-tater hands a time or two. In that case, it’s about how you handle the follow-up. Make sure to carry some extra potato money with you to reimburse people in those moments. We’re all in this together.
Callouts and clapping were some of the more obvious signs that gave me pause when he was little. I still wasn’t convinced it was autism considering all the information that TV tells you is about one specific person’s autism. My son liked hugs and being loving. He laughed and made eye contact. It was all there. The Dustin Hoffman checklist was left blank, making me think that it couldn’t be autism.
But it was. It wasn’t what I saw in the movies. It was what I saw in my home.
Rarely did my son play with a toy the way that it was intended to be played with. This started from his earliest age. The cars never went vroom or followed a path. They’d be turned upside down with the wheels spinning as he slowly moved his head to catch the glare of it in the sliding glass doors.
The first time I went into his world was because of one of these stimming actions. Watching him roll a toy telephone on wheels under the chair in the living room, only to slowly pull it back out by its string while peering at it in the mirror, I had to know why. When I sat next to him and joined in, the look on his face was something I will never forget.
At the end of the day, I can list everything that made me believe it was autism, and none of them might be relevant to anyone else’s situation. I can, however, tell you the one thing that is. There’s one universal sign that anyone who sees should act on.
I felt it. I felt it in my stomach. Maybe I was iffy on the actual term that would come back to me, but I knew there was a term hanging out there that applied to us. As his father, I had to put away all that self-pity and fear based on ignorance. This wasn’t about me. This was about him.
My son’s special needs weren’t something I could wish away. It was something that was here and something I had to understand. I’m his dad. It’s my job.
Today, I’m still learning. There’s no one like my boy. If that’s because of autism, then autism is a beautiful thing.
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