Friday, November 5, 2010

The Obvious and the Obscure

Some children have what one might call obvious disabilities.  They may be in wheelchairs, or like my youngest son, have a cane.  They may have a physical appearance that identifies them as having a disability, like Down Syndrome.  Some children have disabilities that are not so least not at first.  Their disabilities are obscured by their seemingly normal outward appearance.  Children with autism, cognitive delay, or epilepsy may fall into this category.  The reason I mention this is because I have one child with an obvious disability and one child with an obscure disability.  The reactions that these boys have gotten from total strangers have been as different as night and day.  More on that later.

In fairness, I don't consider my son with Asperger's to have a disability any more. I say this only because in spite of his social awkwardness he is capable of doing so much more for himself than my youngest son is capable of doing.  However, looking back on his toddler years and preschool years I think, "Wow...he was autistic."  The signs were all there: the echolalia, the lining up of toy cars and trains, endless Thomas the Tank Engine videos, and the meltdowns.  Good grief how I remember the meltdowns.  I almost need a drink just thinking about them.  I remember the exhaustion, the shame, and the confusion of wondering why my kid acted like that.  Don't think that I didn't second guess our parenting skills everyday.  When my youngest son was born, we knew almost from the get-go that he was going to have some disabilities; we just weren't sure to what extent.  During that time, it was easy to attribute my oldest son's behavior to being a bratty two year-old.  As he got older, it was harder to explain away the behavior and the language delay.  Finally, just three months shy of his fifth birthday, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

Disbelief and relief are just two of the emotions I felt: disbelief that I had a child on the autism spectrum; relief that we finally had a diagnosis.  We finally had a name to go with the behaviors.  We finally had an explanation to give to other people.  You see, ever since my youngest son got his cane, I cannot tell you all of the looks of sympathy and kindness we have received.  He had an obvious marker (the cane) that told everyone he was blind.  When my older son was younger and he had one of his trademark meltdowns in public, or he would take off running through the mall, I did not feel the love from strangers.  He did not have anything that marked him as autistic.  So, everyone assumed he was a brat and we were bad parents.  If having these two boys has taught me anything, it would be not to assume.  Now when I hear a small child in public having an extreme meltdown, I don't automatically assume it's bad behavior or bad parenting.  Instead I think, "Hmm, I wonder if he's autistic."

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