6am. He jumps into bed with us, radiating sunshine and smiles even in the dark, and he shouts "good morning, daddy!" I tell him, "happy birthday, sweetie," and hug him tight. He's picked eggs, grits, and an English muffin as his "super birthday breakfast," and the five of us chow down and get ready for a super day.
Today he's six, and he'll go to kindergarten class, eat cupcakes to some birthday tunes, and then shuttle over to the upper grades for reading and math. His teachers love him, and except for a little hyper energy, they're glad to have him, even in the upper grades. He's almost frightening in his command of numbers; but the class loves him, and breaks out in applause when he does problems like 36^2 in his head. He memorizes track lengths on CDs and can tell you at any arbitrary point during the track how many minutes and seconds are left.
It wasn't always this way.
Neurologists don't know shit. At age two, our little guy had stopped talking, as if he had forgotten the few words he knew. No more "dada". A speech therapist we knew suggested that we have his hearing tested. A-OK. Everything checked out. A few months later, the playgroup people suggested that maybe we get him, uh, more checked out. His behaviors were not good. He was screaming, screaming, screaming. No games. No imitation. No pointing. No social interaction whatsoever. Exhibiting behaviour that seemed ... well ... almost autistic.
"Definitely autism," said the neurologist. "What can we do?" we asked. "You'll likely have to arrange for his long-term care -- it's highly likely that he'll have fairly limited mental ability," he said.
"What's the prognosis?" we wanted to know. "You want me to guess?" he wearily asked. We shelled out our co-payment and left.
I'm still not sure where we went right. In some sense, my mother did us a favor when she went into grieving. We were terribly offended: "it's not as if he's dead, mom. He's still the baby we love, mom. People love dogs, mom." I guess, between the neurologist and my mother, we got pissed. Very pissed. The phrase I remember my spouse saying was, "he's going to be all he can be." That set the tone.
That first year, we read books (including the wonderful "Behavioral Intervention in Young Children With Autism"); we were tempted by various claims of secretin, vitamin supplements, and diets; and we reached out to every single smackin' early childhood intervention program we could. I would like to say that "we" were relentless, but in fact, it was really my spouse who was relentless, reaching out every which way to find information and answers -- whereas I was merely driven. We enrolled him in physical, occupational, and speech therapy. We swallowed our misgivings about kooky-sounding stuff like "sensory integration," and gamely brushed his arms and used a weighted blanket.
We tried to minimize self-recrimination, but it occasionally reared its ugly head, a la Steve Martin in Parenthood: "She smoked pot!" We thought constantly about things like thimerosal and possible mercury poisoning. Or, might there have been some unknown environmental factor in our home?
What about his accident at 11 months, when we reluctantly yet stupidly strapped him into a friend's jury-rigged high chair, only to see him, slow-mo and agonizing, kick off the table, and slam his head on the kitchen floor, from way, way, way too high. Could that have anything to do with it? Yet, that night, we thought we lost him. He lay still on the floor; not even a cry, and he wasn't breathing when we got to him. So on some level, especially in our search, we were simply grateful to have him, rather than not to have him.
But still, above all, we tried to find "handles" that we could use to lure him back into our world. Anything that made him respond, we'd push, we'd explore. His first word a year after his diagnosis, was "car."
We sometimes think, "well, maybe the diagnosis was wrong," but then we look at documentation that we created four years ago, and we know that there was something profoundly up -- and that something has changed. Besides, he's still a weird little kid -- he's just, well, on our planet rather than stuck inside his own skull. But neither my spouse nor I can say what exactly pushed him back. Was it his first-year occupational therapist, who had an incredible and electric connection with him? Was it the "Little Walden" program we enrolled him in, with two "peers" per autistic child? Was it the "Behavioral Intervention" book's program?
Honestly, I'm 'way too pragmatic to dwell on any of those thoughts. I'm just glad it's his birthday; I'm glad he's six years old; I'm glad he's alive; and I'm glad that his weird little brain lives in our world.
It's a hell of a great day today.