By Andrea Watson March 2, 2021
A few years back, my sister casually mentioned to me that she knew I was autistic for a long time and she just assumed that I knew too. My world was completely turned upside down. So for the longest time I just thought I was a jerk who didn’t get along with other people and who couldn’t process emotions. Today, that same sister found out that she is also autistic. When she spoke to our father about it over the phone, he said, “Oh yeah, I’ve known you were high functioning autistic for years”. My stepmother, who butts into every single one of my father’s phone conversations with us, then proceeded to mock my sister because she should have known and made light of all the teasing that she and her daughter performed against my sister when we are younger. She actually teased all of us and treated us all horribly, but that’s another story. She just makes it nearly impossible to ever talk to my father and that’s why I don’t do it.
Anyway, my sister was rocked deep to her core by this information. I mean, really it shouldn’t have been a surprise to either of us. There is definitely a genetic component that goes into autism and we both have children with this developmental disorder as well as nephews with the diagnosis. It never came across either of our minds that we might have the same condition as our children and nephews. Like I said, I thought I was just an a-hole and I don’t know what she thought, but definitely not this. This is something that’s really hard to learn after you’ve grown into an adult because the growing up is so incredibly difficult. You can’t understand your emotions, you can’t process them, you can’t form or maintain interpersonal relationships, friendships are simply absent, and in my case I’ve stayed single for most of my adult life and I’m 40 now.
Getting an early diagnosis is essential for avoiding this kind of earth-shattering revelation during adulthood, but it is also very important for getting early intervention, which is the best way to go if you are autistic. When my son was diagnosed, nobody would even touch the situation until he was about two and a half years old. But the window for early intervention is somewhere between the ages of two and six years old. This is because the brain has enough plasticity in this age range to benefit from intervention tactics such as occupational, speech, and other types of therapies.
Today, there’s testing available for children as young as 12 months old. This is a step in the right direction. Getting an early diagnosis with any type of problem be it medical, developmental, or mental health-related is important because it allows the professionals and the patient to work together with an accurate knowledge of the problem to find and utilize proper intervention techniques. Just like you need to know there’s cancer in order to perform chemotherapy, you need to know there is autism in order to get into the different types of therapies that are used to help children reach their full potential. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that lasts a lifetime. It is often characterized by repetitive behavior and impairment in speech and social interactions.
Because it’s a developmental thing, the symptoms of autism can lessen over time as a person learns new strategies to deal with their impairments. For example, I’ve always been terrified of making or receiving phone calls. This is because I don’t know when it’s my turn to talk, and I usually can’t decipher what the other person really wants unless they tell me straightforward and directly. Basically I’m just terrified of human interaction. But I once had a job working at a veterinary hospital and part of my duties was to work the front desk. I had to answer and make phone calls, it was part of my job. So I taught myself how to do this. It was extremely difficult but I finally got through it and now I’m a little better at doing what I need to do as far as the phone goes.
Autism often involves sensory seeking. The child may chew on things constantly. I chewed on towels and writing utensils and my nails, and my son chews on his fingers, toes, clothing, and anything else he can fit in his mouth even if it is made out of metal or rock. There may be a need for deep pressure or vestibular sensory input. People with this disorder are often sensitive to sound. It can go either way, with liking one sound and disliking others. For example, my son used to scream every time a big truck went by, but he likes certain other things to be really loud. I never can tell what he’s going to like, because it is something about his brain that I just don’t understand. I can’t stand hearing loud motors or electricity, but the music that I like should be pretty loud when it plays in order for me to be satisfied. You may see the person rocking back and forth like I do or dealing with other sorts of repetitive behaviors.
One thing that is terribly difficult for autistic children to handle is the transition between activities. For example, I used to take my son to occupational therapy a few times per week. After each session was over and it was time to leave he would take both fists and wrap my hair around them, pulling my head down, and kicking me in the face while screaming. It took at least half an hour to get out of the office every time. When plans change, that’s another thing that many autistic kids can’t handle. Plans need to be solid and need they need to say the same until they’re completed or else you’re going to regret changing your mind. These children are not trying to be difficult as my father told me I was. They are simply trying to cope without a clear way to do so. This is why early therapies are so important. This is why early intervention matters a whole lot. And this is why early and accurate diagnosis is such a good thing.
As an adult looking back, I can see how much easier my life would have been if my parents had just acted upon the information that they had or thought they had. I truly believe that had I known what I was working with, I may not have turned into a drug addict. I would not be fighting this battle every day to stay sober. I would not have thought that I was just an a-hole. I would have had hope for my future and confidence in my ability to develop skills I needed for everyday life. I realized today that I don’t really know how to be an adult. I was never taught or I never caught on. So I sit here as a person unable to hold a job, unable to have friends or a partner. I’m a person frozen and immobilized in my home, and my best and only coping skill is to use substances which I find interesting because my sister chose Star Trek while I chose drugs.
It is important to give children every edge they can possibly get. This needs to happen while they’re young and the brain is malleable. This will give them a chance for the best possible outcome in life. It will enhance their chances for success in what they choose to do. It will help guide professionals to direct them to the right treatments and interventions that they may need. If you suspect your child may be autistic, or have some other type of neurodevelopmental disorder such as ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder, please don’t hesitate to contact your local psychiatric testing center and get them in for an evaluation. In doing this, you will be doing right by your child. Until next time,