Sunday, October 09, 2005

Seeing the Boy

I've learned a lot about autism in the past few months and even more about Oliver during that time. Autism has come crashing into our home and at times it is difficult to think of anything else. But there is more to Oliver than autism. He is still my sweet little three-year old boy with his own likes and dislikes and a tremendously loveable personality. I know this and I hope that others see it as well. I don't want Oliver to be defined by his autism and so I have been cautious about revealing his diagnosis to many. But his behavior is at its worst when he is around people he doesn't know well or in new surroundings, and it is getting easier to distinguish him from his typically developing peers. So I wonder if it is hard for others to see him as I do.

Some might wonder how it took us so long to figure out that there was something "wrong" with Oliver. Most cases of autism are diagnosed between the ages of eighteen months and three years. Prior to that time parents will report that their child was developing normally. Oliver is no exception. He hit all of his milestones at or ahead of schedule until about the age of two. But then I started to notice that his language skills were lagging behind that of his peers. We had been raising Oliver to be bi-lingual; Nik speaking to Oliver only in his native Swiss German, and I in English. In the beginning we thought he was just taking extra long to make sense of the two languages. There were other clues though. Oliver never really tried to put on his shoes or to take his clothes on and off as other kids his age did. If I wanted him to do something I usually had to physically get him to do it. And then at about age two and a half I started to notice that he would not respond to me if I called his name or said something to him. He was unusually focused on whatever he was doing. He also started to gravitate away from people when there was a lot of commotion. At Christmas last year he famously told my sister and her family "It's time to go home now!" when he had had enough from their rowdy crew of three children. When we went to the playground he always wanted to roam the nearby woods and I spent the entire time dragging him back, trying to get him interested in what the other kids were doing. And sure, there were tantrums but nothing that didn't match what the other parents in our play-group were experiencing with their toddlers. Every time I mentioned my concerns to someone they gave me reasons to feel better. There was the bi-lingual thing. And some kids are just slower to develop than others. I wanted to believe there was nothing wrong. Even after he was diagnosed I had the daily recurring thought, hope, that maybe they were wrong. If a stranger were to sit in a room with Oliver he or she might not be able to detect anything out of the ordinary -- except for that persistent gibberish of his that takes the place of understandable language.

I mentioned in my first post that Oliver has quite a program in place and we have been so impressed with what I like to think of as Team Oliver. Besides the crew of people at his school, Oliver has four therapists who regularly visit our home to work with him either 1:1 or 2:1. The therapists, Oliver and our family and make a strong team. Lindsey, one of our favorite therapists, works both in the classroom and the in-home program. She is incredibly positive and has been particularly adept at integrating herself into our household three days a week. On Friday mornings when I am home with the boys our schedule involves taking an excursion to a local bagel shop. Oliver and I had been doing this regularly for a year and I saw no reason to stop. Last Friday as we settled into our regular booth with the boys, Oliver was already in deep conversation with his bagel and Lindsey told me how much fun she has working with Oliver. "He has an amazing personality. He is such a pleasure to work with." At first I thought that Lindsey was a skilled therapist for all ages since she seemed to be speaking directly to my concerns of late. When your child is first diagnosed with autism many things come into focus; you see habits and behaviors with a new understanding and you wonder if anyone will ever be able to see past the autism to the boy. Lindsey's comment was much more powerful and healing than she probably realized. And yes, she is a very good therapist. Oliver is an amazing boy. And Team Oliver is strong.

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