“There are as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in a typical galaxy.” – Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey
Babies are frickin’ amazing.
Oh sure, I know some of you are thinking, “No way! They scream and cry and spit up and sometimes smell poopish, and they don’t DO anything really. So what makes them so frickin’ amazing?!” Well, I mean they’re amazing in a more scientifically, philosophically cosmic way. Think about it: Biology, chemistry, and physics combined with the genetics of a mother and father handed down from all their ancestors who came before them to create this unique individual – the only one of its kind in the whole Universe. THAT is frickin’ amazing.
And what’s more, each child is their own person, with likes and dislikes, personality, and talents that sometimes seem to come from neither Mom nor Dad. From the moment babies are born, their minds are full of electricity – experiencing the world through their senses, making observations and connections about what they see and hear and feel, combining these sensations with emotions – building understanding and creating memories.
As the grown-ups tasked with their upbringing, it’s easy to become spellbound by how talented and advanced our child seems in intelligence or physical abilities compared to their peers. Parents can’t help but brag! (Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed – you’ll see what I mean.) When you really think about it, it makes sense to be proud of this incredible little person you created, to boast (or even be somewhat delusional) about their talents and abilities. And it’s natural to acknowledge how special they are to you and to recognize their potential to go far in life and achieve big dreams.
It was really no different with us. We were amazed and enthralled by our boy. What a little athlete, far ahead in motor skills! He was always on the move, with an energy that could not be contained. Shortly after he was able to pull himself up, he spent his time making his way around the play-yard gate looking for a way out, like a velociraptor in Jurassic Park, testing the electric fence for weaknesses and plotting an escape. As soon as he could walk, he was running. As soon as he could run, he was sprinting down the hall and diving into a beanbag chair as though he were a gymnast performing a vault exercise. It wasn’t long before he was bouncing and jumping on cushions and balancing on the wooden beams around the garden.
At 12 months, my son said his first words: “clock” and “car”. What a smarty-pants! Most babies say “ma-ma” or “da-da”, but not our boy. Soon after, he no longer said those words…or any new words, for that matter. But the parenting books said that if your baby is focused on learning new skills, they often put other skills on the backburner for later. And our little guy was MUCH more interested in running and jumping and “being a boy”. Besides, boys speak later than girls anyway, right?
Man, he was hard to entertain! He seemed completely uninterested in the toys that were appropriate for his age group. Well, naturally! He was far too advanced to interest himself in such silly toys. If he did show interest in a truck, it was to examine it closely and observe how the wheels moved. If he played with a puzzle, he never put the pieces back into the frame but instead lined them up, one corner or side of each shape carefully touching the shape before it. When he was absorbed in these tasks, or any task really, he was so focused that he wouldn’t even respond to his name. “He’ll definitely be an engineer,” we said confidently.
Even as a little baby, our son was very visual and highly observant. I was so impressed when he became fascinated with the shadows that I cast on the wall as I changed his diapers. I would make shadow puppets for him and move my hands dramatically as he watched, mesmerized. When he became an active toddler, he noticed lines and shadows everywhere we went. He seemed almost distracted by them, walking the painted lines in a parking lot, running back and forth along a long crack in the driveway, getting on his hands and knees to examine the lines of grout in between the tiles of the kitchen floor. I remember the uneasy feeling I got at a “mommy and me” art class/playgroup, watching other boys and girls, all the same age as my son, painting pictures at the table and playing tag, while my boy wriggled from my lap and laid down with his head on the concrete floor, gazing at the contrast of light and shadow created by the sun as it streamed through the window blinds. “Maybe he will be a scientist?” I wondered, a hint of doubt creeping in.
Could it be that there was something a bit different about my child’s development? Something not-quite-right?
Everyone reassured us that he was fine. He’s a boy! Boys have lots of energy. They talk later than girls. He’s super-intelligent – that’s why he’s so observant. So what if he plays differently…that just shows he thinks outside the box! I wanted to believe them. So did my husband. We both wanted to remain spellbound by our boy’s uniqueness, by his brilliance.
In a way, our delusions became a cover for our denial.
The truth is, it is unusual for a baby to say the name of objects before saying the names of the two most important people in his life: Ma-ma and Da-da. And a baby should be far more interested in his mother’s face than in the shadows her body casts on the wall. And while finding another use for a toy may show innovation, it may also show a rigidity of thought and an inability to observe and imitate others for the purpose of learning. And what about his advanced motor skills? Was his need for almost constant movement masking some underlying developmental issue?
These clues remained vague, these questions, unanswered, until a possible explanation was offered by an unlikely source…my mother-in-law, my son’s Abuela. She said the word that my husband and I had been avoiding: Autism. And with that one word, I knew that there was no going back. I was in my alternate universe to stay.