The A Word

“What do you think, Anne Marie?” I asked my friend, not at all meaning the blouse I was looking at on the rack.

Anne Marie was another mother I’d gotten to know through our Gymboree classes.  We had a very convienence based friendship, one based on our children and their ages more than much in common.  Anne Marie intimidated me; her husband worked for Mercedes Benz, and they had lived most of their married life on the East Coast.  She seemed more worldly, had a big house with beautiful things in it.  But like myself, she had left a promising career to follow her husband’s, and was now a stay at home mother of two small children.  Much of our time spent together was spent reconciling the disparity of what we had been trained to do professionally versus what we spent our days actually doing.  Anne Marie had been a speech therapist before her children were born, and so I had wanted to engage her in conversation about Michael, to get the perspective of a professional who knew about such things, but who was not engaged with the case; an unbiased but valid opinion.

“I think its time you took him for a private evaluation to screen for something more,” she responded, answering the question as she knew I needed it answered, instead of the obvious way.

“Do you think it is possible that there could be more going on here than a speech delay?”   I responded, placing the blouse back on the rack, losing all pretense that we were actually shopping at this point.

Anne Marie looked at me seriously.  I was hoping for a positive answer, but tired of hearing the softballs that the therapists were telling me.  It was now July and Michael still had no consistent words at all; he was now twenty eight months old.  He was not progressing at all under the expertise of our private speech therapist and the spotty tutelage of the Help Me Grow therapists.  “I think you have to seriously consider at this point that he might have autism.”

I gulped.  The A word had started to be bandied about with the people working with Michael, but no one would seriously entertain the possibility.  They all instead focused on the speech therapy and his current diagnosis of apraxia.  I had purchased book after book about it, looking for something, anything to start my sweet little boy on the road towards normalcy.  But so far, no matter what I tried at home, no matter what the various people engaged in helping us did, he still was stalled in his development.  “But he doesn’t shy away from people; you’ve seen him.  He makes eye contact.  He wants approval.”

We walked out of the door of the store past a cashier frustrated at not having made a sale.  “Autism comes in many, many forms.  It can display in a lot of ways.  I’ve seen tons of kids like Michael who smile sometimes, who can make eye contact with familiar people, but who indeed have autism.”  Anne Marie looked at me.  “Did you suffer any birth trauma during his labor?”

I stopped walking in the warm twilight and sat down on one of the benches of the upscale, outdoor mall.  “How did you know that?”

“It’s a common thread with children who have speech delays or other issues.  What happened with you?”

I described how Michael’s cord had been wrapped around his neck and how his heart rate had dropped along with my blood pressure at the end of labor.

“He might have been deprived of oxygen then,” she responded.  “Not enough to have immediate distress, but enough to damage his brain in ways that are just starting to come to light as he grows older.”

I nodded silently, overwhelmed with Anne Marie’s answers.  I had been trying to tell myself these last few months that Michael was just having a blip on his radar, that we would do what it took to catch him up to speed, and then we would move forward, as we had with my other children.  What would it mean if Michael had autism?  What would we do about it?  What would it mean for his future?  The only experience I had with the word was the movie “Rain Main”; I couldn’t imagine my sweet boy turning into the rigid, monosyllabic adult depicted by Dustin Hoffman in the film.

“Take him for an evaluation,” Anne Marie said, trying to infuse her voice with comfort.  “The doctors will pinpoint what he needs and then you will get him therapists to fill those needs.  The earlier you start, the better chance he will have.”

I stood, gathering my things and starting toward the cars.  “Thank you,” I answered, my voice a choked whisper.



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