Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Flack
I am not a paediatrician, and I am far from an expert on autism. (I would always suggest asking a professional.) But I wasn’t surprised when I learned my son had autism—I’d always known.
Channing had always been a happy, wild and expressive little boy. When I first questioned if everything was “normal” with him, people seemed shocked. Honestly, my husband didn’t even understand why I was worried. But I could just feel it. We have several friends with babies, all within a few months of Channing’s age, and he always seemed different—and I don’t mean different in a bad way. He was our little wild man (we nicknamed him “the dragon” because he could totally burn you down, going from zero to 60 so fast that your head would spin). We just thought he had a big personality—and he still does.
A lot of characteristics of children with autism can be perfectly “normal” and age appropriate. But what I’ve learned is that the combination of all of them together leads to an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis.
Channing seemed to develop normally at first, excelling in gross motor skills and topping the charts in height and weight. He started waving and saying “bub-bub” for bubbles at nine months old. He would also point to the sky when you’d ask him “Where’s the moon?” It was so exciting to watch him learn and discover the world. It’s what I had always been waiting for as a parent.
But by 15 months old, he stopped pointing to the sky—we actually couldn’t get him to point to anything. (He still doesn’t point—we’re working on that!) I was told that sometimes babies regress, and he would probably be pointing again in a few months.
Channing went straight from crawling to running, and he was so coordinated that we figured he was just developing motor skills and the cognitive skills would come later. But I couldn’t wait—my gut was telling me that I needed to see more from him. I always felt like people were saying “He’s so young” and “Don’t put pressure on him—it’ll happen.” But it wasn’t happening.
I would write down all his milestones, but over time, I had nothing to say. I hated seeing people’s monthly posts about their kids’ new skills, likes and dislikes—it made me so sad. I felt like I was living in a twilight zone and watching my child fade away from me.
When Channing was 18 months old, I asked our daycare director if she would watch his classroom interactions for a week and let me know if she thought anything seemed “off.” He passed her test and she thought he seemed fine—he was just a wild boy who didn’t want to sit for storytime (or ever). I wasn’t convinced. I watched and interacted with the other kids in his class at pickup and drop-off, and there was no other child that behaved the way my little boy did.
We decided to switch paediatricians after several back-to-back ear infections. When we arrived at the new doctor’s office, she gave me an 18-month developmental milestone survey to fill out. I felt sick to my stomach. I was answering “never” to almost all of the questions and hanging on to every inch of hope when I’d reach a question where I could answer “sometimes.”
The new paediatrician expressed her concern over Channing’s hearing and sent us for tubes. We thought, OK, that makes sense. He has been hearing poorly because of ear infections, so he is delayed. He will catch up. But a few months post-tubes, he still wasn’t talking and seemed to be responding to his name less and less. I would make silly faces and do goofy things to get his attention or try to get him to mimic me, but there was still no reaction. He seemed happy, but he would laugh at nothing in particular. He barely noticed when new people walked into the room and seemed to always be off on his own when the daycare would send photos of his day. All they would say is “He is great at independent play.”
Looking back now, I can see all the red flags.
So, how did we confirm our suspicions? We got help. I called every day for four months to get an earlier appointment with a developmental paediatrician. I took videos of Channing for the paediatrician to watch and wrote down all his likes and dislikes, as well as learned and lost skills.
We knew something was wrong because we did what everyone tells you not to do: We compared. (Now, before someone yells at me, I’m not telling you to compare. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But we needed to compare so we could understand.) Comparing helped us see what was “off” and what we needed to address so that our son could have the best life possible.
It took 10 months post-tubes for Channing to be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and have his first day of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy—and that is extremely fast. I quit my full-time job, which I loved, because I wanted to be home with Channing as much as possible. (I know not everyone is able to do that, and I’m so thankful and blessed that I was.) And that is why I’m writing this. If you have any doubt, start asking questions. Talk to your paediatrician. Autism Speaks is also a great resource.
Channing is now in ABA therapy for 30 hours a week, as well as speech therapy. We love his therapists, and so does he. While no parent wants an ASD diagnosis, we’re glad we got ours early. We’re going to get the help we need and, by doing so, give him the best shot at developing “normally.” (I hate even writing that sentence because I don’t want to say my son is not normal—what the heck is “normal,” anyway? But you get the idea.)
This article was originally published online in October 2019.