If you would have asked me five years ago what Autism Awareness Month meant to me, I would have shrugged and said “nothing.”
That wouldn’t have meant I was indifferent and it wouldn’t have meant I didn’t care. It just would have meant I didn’t see the point.
Of course I was “aware” Autism existed. Who isn’t? So, from my point of view, putting a little ribbon covered in puzzle pieces on your car or wearing blue on a specific day wasn’t going to make me any “more aware” that it was affecting people.
I didn’t see the point — but I didn’t know what I know now.
I want to tell you a story about the worst day in my life.
It’s not an inspirational story and it doesn’t have a happy ending, but if just one person reads this and learns something, it’ll be well worth it.
On January 28, 2014, my husband and I took our son in for his 24-month “well baby” check-up. It was supposed to be an “in and out” appointment. After all, Ben was a rosy, chubby, healthy baby.
We had absolutely zero concerns walking into that doctor’s office, and then all of our lives were changed forever.
I noticed right away during the visit that something was wrong.
Because the office we went to operated with rotating physicians, Ben rarely saw the same doctor twice. But this one was acting very different than all of the others had. There was no smiling, no chatting, none of that “ooh what a big boy…” babble pediatricians are prone to.
No. She sat on her little spinney doctor stool and she stared at him — and I realized, she was studying him.
Finally, she called his name a few times and offered him her stethoscope to play with. He ignored her entirely.
She asked us how many words he used and made furious notes when we told her he wasn’t speaking yet. When she stood up, Ben walked over to play with her chair, spinning it around and around.
After more questions, she told us she was concerned with some of his behaviors — but especially about his lack of speech. She said at this point he should be putting words together — not still working on “Mama.”
I was starting to get a little freaked out by this appointment so I just cut to the chase and asked the unthinkable: “You don’t think he’s Autistic or anything do you?”
I fully expected her to rush in with the calming “No, no, no — nothing serious like that. Maybe just a speech delay, we might want to check his hearing again …”
But she didn’t. Instead she said: “He’s throwing up a lot of red flags. I’m going to write you a referral to a developmental pediatric behavioral psychologist.”
And I burst into tears.
From there, I can’t pretend to be proud of my actions. I called her a quack, snatched up my son and we left.
In the car on the way home I ranted about the doctor: How dare she? She met my son once and thinks she knows him well enough to lay this kind of life-changing label on him? Autism? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about …
But as my anger subsided, I became more and more worried and when we pulled into the driveway, my husband took Ben inside and I drove over to the library where I checked out every single book on Autism they had.
I remember in one of the books there was a checklist of 10 things and it said if your child exhibited three or more of the things on this list, you should talk to your doctor.
As I went through the list — as impartially as I could — nine of the things absolutely applied to Ben. Nine.
I started crying again.
Looking back, there were signs — a lot of them — we just didn’t see. We explained everything away: He’s just a late talker, he lines up his toys because he’s well organized, he doesn’t like to be held because he’s just not snugly …
You know what they say, hindsight is 20/20.
We received his diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder shortly afterwards following his appointment and evaluation with the developmental psychologist but it’s not that day that’s forever ingrained in my mind — by then, my husband and I already knew what it would say.
Autism affects 1 in 68 children, including my Ben.
I told you this story to say this: This is why all of these “awareness” months are so important. You can know something exists and still not see it — even when it’s right in front of you, affecting the person you love the most in the whole world.
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Sentinel-Progress and can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the newspaper’s opinion.