Thursday, January 8, 2009

David at two years old

Autism was something that I had seen on Sixty Minutes or some other news magazine. That was the first I had ever heard of it. I never knew anyone, nor knew about anyone who was autistic when I grew up. My wife, Yvette and I already had two children and David was our third and last child. When I saw the segment about an autistic child, it did not cause me any concern. Autism was really rare.
At two years old, my son, David, never acquired language. He had occasionally said a word, but he never had anything I would count as emerging language skills. At least he had no spoken language. He clearly took instructions that one would expect from a two year old. But he never said anything. In my family, (I come from a family of 10 kids) we had late speakers. So I wasn't worried. As far as I was concerned his language would come when it was ready.
At two years old, David started head banging. Two of my brothers had done that when they were little. Again, no big deal. When my brothers would bang their heads on the floor, my father would shrug his shoulders and say, "As long as they don't hurt the floor." I wasn't cavalier, but I was optimistic. My brothers grew out of their head banging phase and I figured that David would grow out of his.
It got worse. Even when my brothers would band their heads you could see that there was a measure of self preservation. If they banged their heads too hard, then the next time would be a lot softer. David was different. After the first few times, his forehead looked like he was budding a unicorn horn. Our parental instincts overruled my experience growing up with my brothers. Yvette and I did not make a big issue out of it. Each time David would get frustrated and start banging his head, we would simply pick him up and get him interested in something else. Yvette and I were lucky. It took maybe a month. David stopped head banging and never took it up again.
David could not stand loud noises. At the time, I did not understand the extent of this aversion. If his brother or his sister cried, David would throw a fit. He would scream loud enough that it did not occur to me that it was the loud noise of his older brother or sister crying that was upsetting him. If loud noises upset him, wouldn't screaming make it worse for him? As with head banging, the idea was to move him away and get him interested in something else. It got him calmed down and peace would be restored in the house. The vacuum cleaner, the drill, any appliance that made a loud noise would make David jump through his skin, yet David delighted in flushing the toilet. I didn't know what to make of that, nor did I think anything should be made of it. Kids like to see cause and effect. Push the handle and watch the water go down.
David had a toy vacuum cleaner my sister gave him that he loved to play with. It seemed that he could stand there moving it back and forth humming like a buddhist monk and listening to the clicking noise that the toy vacuum cleaner made. It was his favorite toy until he got a toy lawnmower that also clicked when it was moved around. Even though David was fascinated by these toys and could play with them for hours, he never objected when we led him off to pursue something else. I thought he was fascinated, but not obsessive. Again, not knowing any better I was not worried.
David never had touch sensitivity. He loved to cuddle and did so with both Yvette and me. He loved to be tickled and he had no trouble with any of us taking his hand. If I was sitting down he would climb into the chair with me just to sit close.
There was a love/hate relationship between David and water. David loved to play in water, but he could not stand to have his clothes wet. He would climb up to the sink and play with the water, and then take his clothes off. At this age, it was nothing to worry about. He would grow out of it.
While this is a description about David, it also says something about my wife and me. Neither of us had any idea about what all of this meant. We did not know what his looking away meant. We did not know what his sound sensitivity meant. We did not know that, yes, some kids learn to talk late, but when all of these things are added together we should worry. And David was not like the one example I had seen on Sixty Minutes. He was cuddly. He was not touch sensitive. He did not destroy the room if his clothes were not laid out for him. He was even tempered. He adapted to changes well. Even when the memory of that one example came into my head, I just knew that David was not autistic.
Autism was unheard of because it was not prevalent back then. I really feel ignorant when I look at myself back then. But then, so was everyone else.

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