Autism - It's Impossible to Predict
When holding my newborn baby in my arms it was impossible to predict his future. As a mother I immediately glanced ahead in my minds eye trying to imagine his life and who he would become. Would he be an artist? A doctor? An astronaut? President? It’s funny how I thought about artist first. I am an artist – an unfulfilled dream of actually working as an artist has always been my biggest regret. I come from poor people and the artist stereotype is one of poverty until, if ever, you get your first big break. I couldn’t take that route. I had to have a stable paycheck. I guess I wanted my son to be who I couldn’t be - an artist.
Imagine my surprise and giddiness when at the tender age of 18 months Matt was holding objects at arms length and viewing these objects from all angles. I saw an artist. It was not long afterward that Matt was diagnosed as autistic. Still, even though such behavior is a classic autistic trait, I couldn’t help but see the artist just beneath the surface. Matt was only 3 years old when I taught him how to trace a picture. His love for drawing was born that day. His hands first slowly and purposeful tracing each line soon began to fly across the page with each new attempt. It wasn’t long before he was drawing freehand. Matt turned out to be a very gifted artist.
It’s impossible to predict which child will be autistic and which child will not. Parents today must consider this possibility when having children as the chances of autism have skyrocketed to a 1:110 chance overall, and 1:70 chance if the baby is a boy. I didn’t think of such things when I was pregnant – autism was still relatively rare at 1:10,000. No one even knew what an autistic child was capable of learning.
If the child is autistic, then it is also impossible to predict to what degree of autism they will have. The autism spectrum is enormous – from very mild behaviors to severe, and no 2 autistic children are alike. This further complicates things as parents can’t even compare progress or success of their child to other autistic children. I never knew another autistic child as Matt was growing up.
Matt was diagnosed as moderate to severe. The prognosis set forth was poor. The doctors suggested Matt would be too much for me to bear. It is obvious to me now that the doctors simply didn’t know much about autism back then. Having never even heard of autism also meant that it never occurred to me to compare him to other autistic children – for which I am thankful. I had no preconceived ideas. What I did do was to compare him to my other neurotypical children. What could Matt do that they could do? What could Matt learn that they had learned? This was the bar that I set for my son. A high, sometimes an impossibly high, bar of success was set in my mind. I pushed for each minor step. Simple things, like speaking, writing, and learning basic math and science in school were one set of goals. Learning to go to thebathroom, take a bath, get dressed, brush his teeth, and make his bed, were a whole additional set of goals. All of them seemed like awfully high hurdles back then, but he learned them. Tiny successes, like the day he took his own bath without me, were reasons for celebration and sometimes tears. After all, the professionals of the time had predicted he would never do any of these things. I trained myself to be extremely observant so I would not miss out on the high of seeing something amazing. Over the years I became a behavior- observation junky (I remain one to this day). Imagine my high as I watched my autistic son walk across the stage at graduation, with honor cords around his neck, and a proud smile on his face. I remember wondering, “Would there ever again be such an amazing parental high?” To answer that question, yes. The amazing changes just keep coming!
It’s also impossible to predict how autism will affect their life. Matt is 25 years old and I can still not predict what his life will be like even 5 years from now. I have set goals for him – like driving and living on his own – but these are still in the planning stages. What Matt will accept for himself is not something I can simply force upon him. He wants to drive a small truck and he wants his own apartment and this is the driving force for the goals I set – Matt really wants these things. Will he drive? Will he live on his own? I can’t predict. I don’t even want to speculate – it might ruin the next amazing high.
All in all, autism is impossible to predict. You never know if a child will be autistic, or if autistic, to what degree. You never know if your autistic child will be able to achieve the smallest of goals, or what their life will be like just a few years down the road. Parents of an autistic child live in the moment and reach for the future in a very different way than parents of the normal, neurotypical child. They set their expectations differently, not lower by no means, but rather at a slower pace. Each day brings the possibility of seeing something amazing, of knowing your child in a very different way. Matt fulfills a part of me I never knew existed until he entered my life. The very least I can do is to be his tour guide to the possibilities that lay before him. His wonderful accomplishments thus far tend to enhance the brightness of his future.
Yet, when or how he gets there is still impossible to predict.