By Lisa Smith Molinari
Although I don’t talk much about it any more, my husband and I raised a child with what has become known as “special needs.” When I gave birth to him in April of 1995, there was no indication that he was anything other than a healthy nine-pound baby boy. But three years later, a developmental pediatrician would rock our world.
“In my opinion,” the Air Force doctor at RAF Lakenheath said looking into our widened eyes, “your son has Atypical Autism.” A couple of hours later, we were frantically grabbing every book on the subject in the library, determined to prove the doctor wrong.
I recall one passage in an outdated book that painted a grim picture of the “typical” scenario: Parents receive the diagnosis and are determined to get their child all appropriate treatments. They are encouraged when their child makes progress with aggressive interventions. But as the child grows, the gap between him and his peers widens. As an adolescent, he wants friends, but is confused by nonverbal cues, facial expressions and gestures. Unable to develop peer relationships, he seeks the comfort of his daily routine — watching the same television shows every day, and pacing around the perimeter of his backyard. The parents realize that their son’s delays are insurmountable and accept that he will never lead a normal life.
We put that book back on the shelf. It was the only time in our marriage I would ever see my husband cry.
This prognosis was too painful to consider, so we did whatever we could. The next eight years were a blur of home therapies, speech therapies, occupational therapies, physical therapies, gluten-free casein-free diets, prescription vitamins, sensory integration regimens, IEP meetings, monitored peer play dates, doctor’s appointments, and mountains of insurance claim forms.
Fortunately, in the fourth grade, our son’s doctor told us that, while he should continue to work through lingering social delays and sensory issues, he no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for autism or any other developmental disorder. We were ecstatic about our son’s progress, but kept our lifestyle of combating autistic symptoms in place. Just in case.
Now 18, our son will most certainly “lead a normal life.” He is in his senior year at his third high school, and has already been accepted to colleges. He has earned four varsity letters in football, is a gifted musician, has taken eight Advanced Placement courses, and is an Eagle Scout.
Despite his obvious success in conquering a serious developmental disorder, we still have regular moments of worry because our son is still “quirky.”
There are days when we see autism creeping around like a phantom, threatening our son’s future. A far away look in his eye. The sound of him muttering to himself in the shower. His stubborn aversion to certain textures in food and clothing. His social awkwardness. His tendency to avoid interaction.
We try to put it out of our minds and hope that these ghosts of his past are simply personality traits that won’t stop him from forming meaningful relationships in life. But I still worry.
Recently, our son landed the role of J.B. Biggley in his high school’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” We didn’t know anything about the musical, and as usual, our son was not forthcoming with any details.
We arrived on the night of the first public showing.
Buying our tickets and finding our seats, several parents accosted us, gasping, “Your son is the one playing JB Biggley?! He is amazing! He steals the show!” Knowing our son’s lack of interpersonal skills, we thought they might be misinterpreting his quirks as character acting. However, when he made his appearance on stage, we understood what everyone was talking about.
Simply put, our son blew everyone away.
At the curtain call, the actors took their turns bowing to the audience. When our son stepped up and bent at the waist, the crowd jumped to its feet, giving him the loudest standing ovation. And no one knows he was once diagnosed with autism.
Sitting in our seats in total disbelief, it was as if all our years of hard work had come to fruition. Like comprehending the vastness of the infinite cosmos, my mind was boggled by the magnitude of our son’s potential and the promise of his happy future.
He’s going to be just fine.
To find out more about Navy’s EFM (Exceptional Family Member) program, visit: http://www.cnic.navy.mil/ffr/family_readiness/fleet_and_family_support_program/exceptional_family_member.html