I’ve written before about realizing early on that Buddy was at risk for developing autism, and that I’d noticed the signs earlier than most parents likely would have. Because of this, when I sought early intervention for him, while a lot of the diagnosticians saw what I saw and were worried, the speech therapists, likely because they probably weren’t used to seeing children with mild autism at such a young age, kept telling me how he would grow out of it and would condescendingly tell me to do things I was already doing (such as reading to him) to help him grow out of it.
If only getting a child with autism to speak were as simple as reading to them every night!
One of the best things about having Sissy, who does not appear to be on the autism spectrum, is that it helps any remaining guilt over whether Buddy developed autism because of my parenting skills. Sissy has hit milestones on her own that Buddy has really struggled with. Every now and then she does something and I think, “Nope, she does not have autism.”
The other day while dressing Sissy decided she wanted to be a big girl and put her shirt on by herself. Well, she started by pulling her shirt on like a pair of pants. Once I coaxed her out of them, with Sissy protesting all the while, I pulled the shirt over my head and said “shirts go over heads!”
I then gave her the shirt, and though she was still a little riled, she put it over her head, and with only a little bit of help, got it on.
Buddy would never have imitated me at the age of 2. If I had demonstrated how to do something, he wouldn’t have mimicked my actions. That he didn’t imitate adults (he would occasionally imitate another child, but not adults) was one of the biggest early warning signs of autism. And the frustrating thing that I could not get his speech therapists to see is that most kids naturally know to imitate. Buddy didn’t, and it was very hard to teach him to do so. Of course, since speech therapy involves imitation, this made their jobs hard and frustrating.
Today while eating dinner, Sissy got a bit too excited with a fork she was holding and scratched Andy with it. We took it away, and for the next five minutes she stared at me with a rather calculated sad face. At one point she even added a little pout. We often refer to her as the drama queen because she will fake cry without tears when she doesn’t get her way and engage in other theatrics. It’s typical toddler stuff, and it’s also typical toddler stuff that Buddy never did.
If Buddy was crying then Buddy was genuinely upset about something. He never gave us the crocodile tears or the sad face at the age of 2. He did start to fake cry a little bit when he turned four, but when he saw he didn’t get what he wanted with it he quickly abandoned the practice.
Another thing Sissy will do is attempt to entrap him. When she was about 18 months Andy and I would notice she would walk up to Buddy, sit down, scream and let some crocodile tears out and then point at him accusingly. Andy and I were rather amused that an 18 month old had enough smarts to plan such a set up, even if it failed to occur to her that we could see the whole thing play out. She still does it, and because of that Andy and I have a firm rule that unless we see Buddy mistreat her we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Thing is, Buddy to this day doesn’t have the ability to do the same to her. Or if he does, I’ve never seen him attempt it.
The final differences I’ve noticed that Sissy has at this age that Buddy did not involve watching tv. For one thing, Sissy will laugh when she watches something funny on tv. While Buddy laughs when interacting with people, I’ve not noticed him laughing while watching tv. The other thing that Sissy will do is attempt the dance moves and try the game. Buddy really latched onto Yo Gabba Gabba and there’s a live version that he enjoys watching (There’s a Party in My City), and when Buddy was about three (a year older than Sissy is now) I would watch it with him and try to get him to imitate the dancing and games they did, but he didn’t. I remember seeing the kids in the audience that appeared to be his age or younger and watch them dance and play the games, and it troubled me that Buddy wasn’t doing that.
Was it autism? Or did he just think that dancing was silly?
In a lot of ways Buddy does not present like the stereotypical autistic child. He’s warm, affectionate, he smiles a lot. He loves to be outside and busy and enjoys crowds. Unlike some parents of children with autism who are scared to leave their house, Buddy tends to behave better in public than he does at home (he gets bored and things get destroyed). “Let’s go outside” is a sentence he says often. And he is so smart that people would tell me not to worry, he’ll grow out of it.
So I would think about all of the things that seemed to say NOT AUTISM, and then watch worriedly and think about the things that he had trouble with that other kids didn’t seem to and think, “but still, why isn’t he doing this if he’ll grow out of it?”
I just can’t begin to emphasize how it is so easy for parents to dismiss these early warning signs. No one wants to think that something is wrong with their child, and it would have been easy to think that Buddy just marched to the beat of his own drummer. The frustrating thing about early autism warning signs is they are ambiguous and easy to dismiss. Sissy, however, has shown me that these are things that most children just do naturally. Once again, I can’t overestimate the importance of training pediatricians, therapists, and even improving awareness among parents about early warning signs for autism.
Having one child with autism and another who appears to be typically developing has strongly illustrated to me how autism is a lifelong developmental condition. Vaccines and parenting ability don’t factor into whether or not a child has it. Buddy had autism when he was an infant. I didn’t have any concerns until he was seven months, though looking back, and especially after having Sissy, I can see the warning signs started in infancy. It didn’t get officially diagnosed until he was 4, but he had it from day one.