Lately, I've been imagining a conversation a lot. It's a conversation with someone who has just had a child diagnosed with autism. In my mind, the child is a girl, like Janey, and is about Janey's age when she was diagnosed, just over three. It's not too hard to figure out I'm probably really imagining a conversation I would have liked to have had with someone myself, but either way, I've been giving it a lot of thought.
In my imagined scenario, I've invited the mother (it could be a father, too, but it's a mother in my head) to my house, along with their newly diagnosed daughter. I'm including her because I want to have a place they both can go that is judgement-free, where there has to be no worries about behavior, and because I know it can be hard to get out of the house alone, and I want this mother to be able to come over. I make us both some coffee, and we sit down, keeping an eye on the little one, putting on a video if she likes that. Then I start telling her the four big things I want her to know.
The first is that there is nobody, nobody at all, who knows how this will all work out, who knows what her daughter will achieve or not achieve. I'll tell her that I know she is feeling scared and also feeling hurried, like she needs to get started THIS MINUTE with some kind of therapy, and that there is no shortage of people giving her their particular ideas what will help. But I want her to know that I feel most kids are going to be what they are going to be. It's not that love and caring and attention and help are not important---they are, and they let the child reach the full potential of what they are meant to be. But nobody knows what that potential is. As a friend said on my Facebook group page recently, there are kids who start out not talking who wind up in graduate school, and there are kids who are very mildly affected who never progress at all, or even regress. And in both these groups, there are parents who care and love and are dedicated to their child, but in both groups, there are parents who tried everything and parents who took a more measured approach. There is no one right way, and there is no route to any one outcome.
With that in mind, I'll say something else I feel is very, very important. I'll tell the mother to enjoy her daughter. I'll tell her to delight in her, to have fun with her, to get a kick out of her. Sometimes, because we are taught to see the autism as something to be fixed, cured, changed, we feel like if we delight in a behavior that might be part of the autism, we are somehow not with the program, we are not being single-minded in our quest to fix this all. And that is just wrong. We need to be able to feel joy in what our child is right now. Laugh along with them as they echolalia their way through a video, enjoy their latest obsession along with them, play with them at the level they are at. Janey is twelve, and she still loves baby games sometimes---peekaboo, patty cake, "where are you?" when clothes cover her eyes. And I love playing them with her. There's nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong and everything right with feeling proud of your child, feeling joy in who she is.
Then I'll talk about the harder parts of it all. Not to jinx them or scare them, but I'll tell the mother that there will be some very, very tough times. There will be nights so long it's impossible to think there will be a morning associated with them. There will be calls from school that shock and chill you. There will be moments of despair, of feeling that if we can get through the next ten minutes, it will be a miracle. There will be anger at those who don't get it. There will be resentment of friends with kids for whom everything seems to come easily and they don't even seem to appreciate it. There will be tiredness, tiredness so extreme there should be a separate word for it. There will be frustration, and horrible cleaning jobs, and days that feature absolutely nothing but one strategy to get by after another, until finally the day ends. I will tell them that during all these times, they will feel extremely alone. They will think that no-one else in the world has lived this life. They will look sometimes to the internet for help, and find only cheery, bright stories of progress. They will look for advice and find that of "experts" who have never been awake all night with a screaming child who can't tell you what is wrong. And I will tell that mother she is NOT alone. I will tell her many, many of us have lived this life. We might not talk about it or write about it much, for many different reasons, but we are there. I will tell the mother when she feels completely alone, imagine a circle of mothers like herself, the middle of the night autism mothers, all raising a cup of coffee to her.
The last thing I will tell her is the thing most like a directive, like a command. I will tell her that if her child is physically sick, she MUST insist on the same medical care any other child would get. I will tell her about a night Janey had a high fever and was shaking enough so it seemed like a seizure, a night we called an ambulance and took her to the ER, a night that the doctor there didn't want to "upset" her, and so did a brief and useless exam, and never once touched her belly, the belly where an appendix most likely had already burst. I will tell her how it took three days for that burst appendix to be found, leaving her with complication after complication. I will tell her we could have lost Janey's life because someone didn't want to "upset" her---or in another way of looking at it, didn't want to bother with a screaming and hard to deal with autistic child. I will tell her that she must tell all doctors that if there is anything they would examine on a typical child, they must exam it on Janey, and we will restrain her if necessary. We would rather have her upset than lose her.
Then, after that intense talk, after in my mind we are both crying, and that has upset her little girl, and I have apologized for that, and we have laughed together at how much coffee we have had, and she is ready to go, I'll hug her and wish her all the best. I will tell her that her daughter is amazing, because I am sure her daughter will be amazing. And as they leave, I will cry to myself a little more, thinking of all they are going to discover together.