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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Look!

When our younger son was born, a nurse placed him on my chest, and he looked me directly in the eyes, holding my gaze. I said hello to him. He was still looking. I kissed him. Still looking.

I didn't know what to do next. My older son was 21 months old, and he had never before held my gaze. He'd barely looked me in the eyes, yet I had not fully realized it until that moment when I met our younger son. Here was my newborn, looking at me so directly that it was I who finally broke the gaze first.

I was uncomfortable. It wasn't until our younger son was born that I realized just how serious an issue we had on our hands with our older son. And, yet I kept my fears to myself, ashamed to entertain the fact that one of my children might be mentally disabled.

Why did I feel shame? I'm not quite sure, but I did. In those moments, I sure wasn't thinking as a mom. Merely, I was thinking as a person who had children, and those children weren't supposed to be different. They were supposed to "coo" and be adorable and develop with their peers. They were supposed to play sports, go to school with their friends--heck, they were supposed to HAVE friends.

Two weeks after the birth of our younger son, our older son was diagnosed with autism, and he began intensive at-home therapy. We chose a combined program which included floor-time play as well as statistical behavioral therapy. The floor-time play was about letting the child lead you, show you where he was ready to learn. Your job was to create therapy around what he was doing at that point in time. The statistical therapy, structured therapy done usually at a table, taught the child rote skills, basic skills upon which to build.

It was during the statistical therapy that our son first learned to look on command and to answer to his name. Before these therapies, we could call our son by name until we were blue in the face, that child would just run from room to room like the Energizer Bunny, never stopping, never answering to his name and barely looking at other people. What typical children did so naturally--a glance, a response--our son had never done. He was in his own world.

It wasn't that he couldn't see us or hear us. His system was in sensory overload. He was so offended by the sights, sounds and feelings of the world around him that he had retreated into his own world. Drawing him out of that world was an incredible task.

During therapy, his teachers would place in his hands a motivating item--a top, a ball--and let him play with it for a minute. Then, they would take it away and call his name. A more complicated program required him to answer to his name and the command to "Look!" at something the teacher was holding. It took FOREVER for him to respond. Watching his sessions were painful. I began to wonder, was too scared to leave the protective shell that he had created? Did his autism just prevent him from understanding why it was important to look and interacting with people? At two, was he just too young in his autism to acquire this skill?

Would he ever acquire this skill?

He was three years old when he learned to answer to his name. He wouldn't hold our gaze, but at least we could get it. We could reach him.


When he looks at me today, I can't help but think of that troubled toddler who worked SO HARD to come out of his shell. I consider having him answer to his name to be an incredible gift. It is so essential to functioning in this world, and there was a time when I feared he would not be able to do it. Blessing come in many forms. This is certainly one of them.

2 comments:

  1. Isn't it wonderful when so much hard work does bring some feeling of achievement. Sometimes I know it is just struggle and not feeling like we're getting anywhere, but it's wonderful to look back and see the string of little things that have been managed, skills acquired, chances taken, communication.

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  2. So true, and yet when you are in the thick of it all, you can feel every second of that clock ticking. It is so hard to not get anxious if there isn't skill acquisition every minute of every hour of every day! I am in awe of how hard our kids work, and I wish as parents we could learn--somehow--to take a breath every once in a while.

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