I am the father of an autistic son, Sam. One of the challenges of helping an autistic person get through life is the unknown: How functional will they be? Will they be able to communicate? Will they be able to socialize? Will they be able to live independently once my wife and I are gone? A few times in our lives, we’ve gotten some answers to these questions. Even if the answer has been negative, it still feels like a great weight has been lifted — not knowing is always worse than bad news, so we’ll take bad news over no news.
Every 5 years or so, we get some good news. I’d like to share some examples with you.
When Sam was 20 months old, he started talking. Two months later, he started losing his words, until he spoke “cat” on his 2nd birthday and then stopped talking completely. By age 4, he started performing echolalia. (This is something all children do when learning a language, but for an autistic child, it is usually the harbinger of bad news, a sign that the child is going to be low-functioning and unable to communicate effectively — think “Rain Man” repeating the station call ID.) Six months later, Sam was repeating dialog on a Spot program playing in the basement: “Where’s Spot? Where’s Spot? Where’s Spot?”. My wife Melissa was in the kitchen when she heard, “Where’s Spot? Where’s… Mom?” Then again, urgently: “Where’s Mom?” Melissa flew downstairs and found Sam looking directly at her, and motioned for her to do something. That one-word change signaled the beginning of Sam learning functional communication.
When Sam was nearly 9, he and his little brother Max were riding in the back seat while we ran some errands. For a treat, we decided to run through a Dunkin Donuts drive-through to get some donuts, and we made a mistake while ordering and got a dozen instead of half a dozen. When Sam saw the large box come into the car, he turned to his brother and said, “Max, we’re rich! RICH IN DONUTS!”
Sam is currently 19 years old. Tonight, my wife and I were watching a show in the basement when Sam called down the stairs to ask if we had gotten him some cream soda, something he mentioned to me before I went shopping. I’d forgotten to get some, but as I apologized, I had the idea to turn this into a life skills exercise: I told him that maybe we could walk down to Casey’s together, a local grocery store located about a 15-minute walk away with some other stores, like a drugstore, barber shop, Trader Joe’s, etc. We could practice navigating there, going through a store, making choices, and paying for our order. I told him we could practice that two days from now, my next opportunity to get home from work early and go over everything with him. He agreed, and left us to our show. 45 minutes later, as our show was ending, he called down the stairs again: “Casey’s was closed, so I went to Trader Joe’s instead.”
Being impulsive, he bought only snacks. But we’ll take it.