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Some Parents Avoid the A-Word. Not Me.

autism, asperger's

How do you know if your child is "normal?"

No, I’m not talking about the swear word for butt.  I’m talking about autism, and more specifically Asperger’s.  Greg Olear, senior editor of The Nervous Breakdown, has written a compelling essay for Babble about why he ignored his son’s Asperger’s diagnosis for a year before dealing with it emotionally.  He writes, “the last thing I wanted to spend my free time doing, after parenting a boy with Asperger’s all day, was talk about Asperger’s.”  Understandable.

Olear’s son is a high-functioning autistic, a bright boy with an expansive vocabulary who is obsessed with states and real estate listings.  (Children with Asperger’s are typically drawn in by minutiae.  12-year-old genius Jacob Barnett was completely engrossed by the details of road maps as a child.  Now he’s expanding Einstein’s theory of relativity.)  Olear says he has finally faced his son’s diagnosis, after having “let it sit there unopened,” like a “credit card bill.”  He doesn’t attend autism support groups and he refuses to put “that puzzle ribbon sticker” on his car, but Olear has done more than come to terms with his son’s Asperger’s; he’s written a novel about it.  In his research, the author found that “Asperger’s has only been on the books since the mid-’90s.”  He writes, “The spike in autism rates in the last ten years, while alarming, guarantees that our son won’t be alone in his struggles.”

Which brings me to a question so many have tried to answer as of late: Why the spike in autism rates?  Is it simply due to a widening of “The Spectrum” and/or more doctors recognizing the symptoms?  Is the autism spectrum like the Kinsey scale, with everyone falling somewhere on it?  I’ve sometimes wondered – aloud, and in front of my child – if she may be a bit autistic.

I don’t know that my daughter is autistic, but unlike Olear, I’ve often thought a diagnosis along those lines would be a relief.  It would at least explain a few things about her, like her ability to write backwards or why she likes to line up her toys in a perfect row, or her need to re-do things she either doesn’t get right the first time or I end up doing for her if she takes too long.  Thankfully her tantrums aren’t as bad as they were a year and a half ago, but her frustration is sometimes so intense, I feel sure that something is – to use Olear’s “fancy industry term” – wrong.

Then again, I acknowledge it’s easy for me to say a diagnosis placing my daughter somewhere on The Spectrum would be a relief – in theory.  In reality, even if she is ever-so-slightly autistic, it’s probably much better – or would make our lives easier – for her not to be labeled “special needs.”  Yet in so many cases, special needs kids are extraordinarily gifted, which should question all of our pre-conceived notions about genius and where and how it intersects with “disability.”

It’s so easy in this day and age of the uber-educated parent to want to pathologize our children.  The fact is, my kid might just be a kid.  I’ve written before about how my mother was able to curb my daughter’s tantrums circa Christmas 2009 by playing the Santa card, and I do understand that tantrums are a part of “normal” child development.  If you’re the parent of a child who is by all accounts “normal,” but may be lagging developmentally or behaviorally in one or more areas, what do you do?

My daughter is a wonderful, kind, smart, happy child overall, but when she is having a “moment,” it can be very intense for everyone involved.  Does she have behavioral problems?  Not compared to some children I’ve come across.  Is it normal to have potty accidents and tantrums daily at 5 1/2?  Not really.  In May, she’ll begin seeing a therapist who was recommended by our new pediatrician in Park Slope.  He suggested she may be acting out as a result of my divorce from her father.  Who knows?  The good news is, according to Psychology Today, she does not have “conduct disorder” or a personality disorder, nor is the fact that she doesn’t like green stuff or red stuff in her food an eating disorder.

Autistic or not, childhood is messy, and our children are often unable to be categorized.  That’s probably because they think, feel and live outside of the boxes we’ve built around ourselves as adults in an effort to protect us from the unpredictable nature of being human.  Like Olear, I’ve stopped worrying about my daughter and what might be wrong with her, and instead prefer to focus on all that is right.  I, too, feel blessed to be the parent “of such an original thinker — and such a sweet kid.”

Photo via Flickr

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