My son, Aidan, is autistic. We began to suspect that something was wrong when Aidan didn’t start to walk on time, like other kids. He eventually did walk, at 16 months, and our doctors told us, “Don’t worry, he’s fine.” Now to any other parent, that might sound reassuring – but to me it was extremely frustrating, because I KNEW something wasn’t right. I have the advantage of doctoral training in counseling psychology; one of the many things we learn is how to recognize, assess, and treat developmental disorders in children. And yes, autism is one of those disorders. So, I had an “in” when I started recognizing symptoms.

Aidan is a little different in that he never really regressed, as many children with autism do. Aidan simply stopped. At about 18 months, he had tubes put in his ears for chronic ear infections – we had hoped that he would start catching up when he stopped being sick so much of the time. His second birthday came and went, and he was still delayed. He had trouble eating independently, and didn’t like to be hugged as much as I would have liked to hug him…so, although there were some “red flags,” they weren’t flying high enough to really warrant a lot of attention. Still, at his checkups, I brought up the possibility of autism with our family doctor. Her advice was to “wait and see.”

One thing I should tell you is that I have a really, REALLY good working relationship with my family doctor. She is an incredible, amazing woman that I trust. More importantly, she listened to me and considered my concerns. Again, though – I had an “in” because of my training, and I’m sure that helped.

Aidan’s sister was born a few months after his second birthday, and Aidan didn’t react to her at all in the way you’d expect a toddler to react to a new intruder. He simply didn’t care and actually acted as though she simply didn’t exist. Unlike most toddlers, he wasn’t curious and he wasn’t jealous. He simply…was. Again, I was concerned – after all, I knew what to look for.

Aidan’s 3rd birthday came and went, and he was pretty clearly not meeting the developmental milestones. I’d been keeping track of these since I’d first noticed difficulties early on – and, as I mentioned earlier, he simply “stopped.” He wa stuck at about 2 to 2 1/2 years old. Our doctor listened to my concerns, and again we give it a few more months just to wait and see. Ok…so we did.

At three and half years, she saw him again – she’d wanted to assess his development specificially withing the few months between visits to see if there were any changes. There weren’t…he as still “stuck” in the two year old phase.

Now if any you know, have been around, or have children at this age, you KNOW what fun I’m talking about. Learning the power of “no” is huge at this age – now imagine getting stuck there, and dealing with it for over two and half years. Potty training – the same. Stuck at early two.

After this visit, our doctor decided that it would be a good thing to run a complete evaluation – ironically enough, she recommended my training clinic as the best place to do this. I KNEW what the outcome of the evaluation would be – after all, I’d been tracking symptoms and such for 2 1/2 years. So, off we went to CSU for the evaluation. I remember telling therapist (who again ironically enough was in the same exact position I’d been in three years before) that I thought Aidan had autism and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD; essentially disobeying for the sheer idea of disobeying and argumentation.) She said, “Well, let’s do the tests and we’ll see.”

Guess what? Amazingly enough…he was diagnosed with mild-moderate autism and oppositional defiance disorder. Here’s the thing – even when you’re prepared, even when you know what’s coming – hearing it is a shock. No parent ever wants to hear that there is something wrong with their child. I’d been through this before when my oldest was diagnosed with ADHD. I thought I was prepared.

And on the way home, with Aidan babbling in the back seat of the care, I cried. Partially out of relief – here was the evidence for what I’d known for years – and partially out of a profound grief. There was something very wrong with my baby.

From this point, we entered the world of “services” and “therapy.” I have to say that I’m eternally grateful to the local hospital and therapists – their work in speech and occupational therapy worked wonders. It’s expensive and I’m also glad we had insurance that covered it. AND, I thought about what life would be like if we didn’t have these advantages.

Today, Aidan speaks relatively close to his age group – he’s about 1 year behind. His motor coordination is better, and he interacts with people much more often and appropriately. I thank God every day for that. He has improved immensely, also in part due to the wonderful Head Start program – he had a wonderful classroom staff and was thrilled to be a “big kid” and go to school. He hugs, kisses, shows affection, interacts and even initiates play with other kids – all of these are miracles I’ll never take for granted again.

There are things about Aidan, though, that are noticeably different. He tends to speak in a monotone that sounds intense or pressured – there isn’t much emotion or inflection in his words. He looks a little different too – there is just something about him that seems a little “off.” He’s fascinated with things no other child I know of has ever even noticed: power poles and lines, “red balls,” train tracks (not the trains – the tracks) and signs. One more thing – heaven help me…I’m STILL changing diapers. (Changing poopy diapers for a 5 1/2 year old is NOT fun, either!)

His little sister speaks more clearly and in a more complex manner than he does, and she’s potty-trained now. She’s teaching him some things with language, interacting, and normal pre-school stuff that he needs and can really only get by interacting. He’ll be in a regular kindergarten next year, and I’m worried for him.

We all know how kids treat other kids who are different and how early it starts. My prayer for the other children and for Aidan is that, somehow, they can overcome the differences and help each other.

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