A family’s introduction to autism

When asked how many children I have, I respond with a shrug and a smile and say, “I have three daughters and a son.”  It’s interesting to watch someone’s facial expression when you tell them that, yes, in this day and age, I have four kids...and on purpose too! My husband and I decided that we wanted to have four children, so there were no surprises when we found out we were pregnant with any of them.

What was a surprise to both of us was that two of our children were diagnosed with a disorder known as autism. Autism is a neurological disorder that typically appears in children by the time they are three years old (though often undiagnosed until older). It impairs their ability to socialize, communicate and use their imagination in ways that are non-repetitive. It affects a child’s behaviour because, often, the child cannot tell you what they need or want.

Autism is very puzzling. Research is ongoing. There are a number of theories, ranging from genetic and environmental factors to gastrointestinal (gut-brain connection) issues. It is a mystery to us that out of our children, two ended up with this disorder...why didn’t all four of them?

Our son was only three years and two months old when he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder -Not Otherwise Specified) under the Autism Spectrum. His “red flags” were not as obvious as described by all the books I’d read about autism. He was referred for assessment because he didn’t start to talk, or even babble, until he was 32 months old, and even then, he spoke with a lot of jargon (we just thought he was a late-talker); he did a lot of eye-tracking with his trains and cars (he would lay on the floor sideways, and push the car back and forth right in front of his eyes, for up to half an hour at a time); he made very little eye-contact; he hated to be read to, but liked to look at books by himself; he never answered his name when called; he didn’t show excitement or enthusiasm for new toys or grandparents coming to visit; he was very noise-sensitive; he didn’t like to be around a lot of people. He hated the “happy birthday” song and cried for hours when he heard it.

Our daughter didn’t get diagnosed until she was four years and one month old. By this time, our son had been doing behaviour-intervention therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy through the North Okanagan Neurological Association (NONA) for more than three years. You would think that we would’ve been experts on the symptoms of Autism Spectrum by that point, but obviously, we weren’t. And that’s because our daughter talked at 18 months old, was always happy and excited, quite loud and boisterous, seemed very sociable and was full of imagination. She was the complete opposite of her brother.  Yet, it was still recommended that we have her assessed because of some of her social behaviour observed at preschool. She was really good at playing, however once another child entered her play-centre, she would walk away, or she would play with the toys only one certain way. She looked past the teachers rather than at them when talking to them. She was obsessed with looking at herself in the mirror and watching herself dance. As well, she had a hard time with back-and-forth conversation, and one or two step directions.

Both kids were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (PDD-NOS), yet they couldn’t be more different if they tried.

I could go on and on about our children, however the main reason I wanted to tell our story is to let parents know that there is help out there if you think your child is developmentally delayed. With autism, there is provincial funding available for programs such as behaviour intervention. My husband and I were shocked at our son’s diagnosis, but within minutes, we were told about the funding available to get the help we needed, as well as the services available both privately and through NONA. Six years later, our son is an imaginative, fun-loving, well-mannered, smart boy with an amazing sense of humour who interacts with his peers. He and his sister have very busy days. They go to school and then to their behaviour intervention sessions. They are amazing kids. They have good days and bad days which is to be expected because, unfortunately, autism doesn’t disappear.

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