Recently, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced that now the percentage of a child being born with autism is one in 50.
As scary as that may sound, I am the parent of a One. Now this percentage sounds bad ... you have a better chance of having a child born with autism than you do winning the lottery. Not to make light of this, but a child diagnosed with autism is not as devastating as many would have you believe. My son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 so I can be a voice of experience for those who may have just recently been told that their child is a One.
When my son was diagnosed as autistic, the only experience that I had with autism was the movie “Rain Man,” and my heart sank because I was thinking like a typical father and looking forward to growing up with a son. We would hit that game-winning home run, throw the touchdown pass or dunk a basketball. Most fathers want to live vicariously through their sons and bask in their glory. Those days came, just not as imagined.
A person must remember that the dream that you have for your child will not necessarily be that of your child’s. This is true of a child with autism or, and I hesitate to use this phrase, but, a normal child. My son is normal, as normal as any son that seldom talks except to himself, is painfully bashful and afraid of people, especially girls, and has above average intelligence. Maybe he is not the sports superstar envisioned, but he has won several accolades for math and computer skills, and [was] voted Quietest Child in school, and he has made me as proud as any superstar father. No trips to Vegas yet, but the thought is there.
Autism is not a white or black thing, not a male or female thing. It’s indiscriminate of socioeconomics or regions. When the number comes up, you have been blessed. It does no good to wonder why because there is not an answer. We blamed certain inoculations that may have been the reason. We had DNA tests performed to find which side of the family was the culprit. The best advice that was given to me was, “You have a son. If you don’t tell him he’s different then he won’t know. Go home, love him and live.”
There are many levels or stages of autism. My son is high functioning, which means unless you spend a lot of time with him you may not even notice. Now, it has not always been sweetness and warm, fuzzy feelings, but everyone is different and everyone has their own quirks.
My son is not the affectionate type; in fact, he does not like being touched. This has made for some sad Mother’s Days at our house. There are no “Love Ya Moms” or bear hugs and thank yous. If someone says “I love you,” his response is, “Me too.” [It’s] not the response that moms want to hear. He has lots of friends, but friends who have adopted him. His shyness is so overpowering that it is a struggle to meet people, have a relationship or go to a job interview. He even breaks out in a cold sweat just talking on the telephone.
Don’t be afraid of a diagnosis or a label. Remember how you felt when you held your child in your hands for the first time and you counted each finger and toe to make sure they were all there and you thought, “My child is perfect.” Keep that feeling and ask for help and pray for patience.
I contacted our local school system and within a few weeks we started my son in a Special Education program. Early intervention and strong reinforcement have helped make the transition from awkward, shy, quiet child to the young man that he is today.
My intent for this letter is twofold. I want to help someone who has just been told that their child is a One and let them know the world has not stopped spinning and the devil has not invaded your child. In the 20 years that I have dealt with this, the best advice that I can give is to ask for help early and follow the same advice given me: “If you don’t tell him or her that they are different, then they won’t know. Go home, love and live.”
The second reason is to say that it gets better. The same little boy that at age 3 climbed into a Special Ed bus while his mother cried like a baby because her baby was going to school ... or the third-grader who said he did “not want to be special anymore, can I just go to school like all the other kids,” will soon get to add another One to his name. He will be one of the graduates walking during the graduation ceremony at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this spring.
And like I said earlier, I am so proud of my One.
— Hal McMahan
(Proud father of Harry McMahan)