Contributed by “The Ed”
My wife and I are parents of an autistic 26 year old adult, David. We have been successful raising him far beyond anything that the diagnosis would portend. The first and foremost reason I attribute to David. I would never wish autism on anybody. But if you have an autistic child I would pray that you have one like David. The second reason is that my wife and I thought for ourselves. Here is the story.
David was diagnosed with autism at 2½. He was a sweet cuddly boy who could not utter a single word. My wife and I were informed by David’s pediatrician that he would be retarded. It was a prognosis that neither of us would accept. David couldn’t talk, but he would answer with his actions indicating that he understood what we were saying. This was the first case where we felt that the experts were wrong and to our credit, we talked to him as if we expected him to understand.
When the phone in our house went out, I went outside to the phone box and tested the line with a phone that I brought from upstairs. I called the phone company to report the dead phone from a neighbor’s house. The next day I got a phone call at work, hearing only silence. David had copied everything I did and then called me at work. He was only three and still not able to utter a word.
My wife is Chinese. I had learned Chinese when I was in the Air Force. Our household at the time was bilingual where both Chinese and English were spoken. We were told that if there was to be any hope of David learning to speak we had to speak only one language at home. What we were told made sense, but with David there were contraindications. It did not matter whether my wife or I spoke in Chinese or English, David would still respond. When David was in his teens he got a job at Burger King where he would often be mistaken for Latino and the clientele would order in Spanish. David would fill the order without asking them to repeat in English. In hindsight, if we had fully recognized the possibilities at the time, my wife and I could have had bilingual children. We should have thought for ourselves, but how could we have known?
From the time he was three through the end of first grade David progressed very well. He was speaking in sentences, socializing with the other children and learning to read. He was also at the top of his class in math. He could add with carry and subtract with borrow. He understood negative numbers and was doing multiplication.
Then during September of second grade, his math acumen was wiped out. Suddenly he could not add past 5 without counting on his fingers. I took him to doctor after doctor and the answer was always the same. They could see no reason for the setback and they had nothing that they could offer to help him. We would just have to learn to deal with it. The experts in the medical community inferred that we should give up. We didn’t listen. We thought for ourselves.
I can’t say that the medical community had nothing to offer. One of the symptoms of David’s setback was that he was often anxious. He was also restless and he could not focus. One of the doctors we visited offered a prescription of Wellbutrin. I read the literature that came with the prescription to learn what the side effects were. The top three were restlessness, anxiety and inability to focus. There was a long list of other side effects including seizures, intestinal problems and the possibility of addiction. Many autistics suffer from seizures. Many autistics suffer from intestinal problems. David had neither of those and I did not want him to start. I also did not want him to become addicted. As the microbes in our sewer will attest, I thought for myself. I declined the prescription for Wellbutrin.
By the end of high school, David was much better. But 11 years of remedial education does not make college material. My wife and I sent him to learn computer drafting. When David finished the course, he told us he wanted to be an engineer. It was flattering. I am an engineer. But David had no science, still had trouble with writing, was slow to speak and it seemed impossible that he could get through engineering coursework. Engineering is abstract in many ways and autistics have trouble with abstraction. And then I thought of that phone box – just one of the many contraindications of David’s life that we had learned to pay attention to and trust.
David graduated last May with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He likes field theory. (Talk about abstract!) Every day I thank God for the courage that allowed my wife and me to go against the experts and think for ourselves.
So my advice to you is to remember we always have freedom of thought. With our freedom comes the responsibility to think and act for ourselves. I believe in the link between freedom and responsibility. For me it is personal.