Looking back, I'm still shocked at how little I was prepared for the life I was going to live. I was never the girl who dreamed of having babies, so the fact that I ended up having eight children was pretty surprising. I have seven boys and one girl, and three of my boys have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
All three boys are still home. Mark is 24 and has Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a milder form of autism. Nathan is 13 and has classic, or more severe autism, and Justin is 10 and has AS. Also at home are Nick, 15, and Adam, 9, who both show some signs of autism but not enough to be diagnosed. Their three other adult siblings show no signs of having an ASD.
I was 23 when Mark was born. When he was breastfeeding, he'd pull his little body as far from mine as he could and avoid looking at my face. It was particularly hard because I had recently discovered that my "unusual" way of parenting had a name: Attachment Parenting (AP). And Mark's behavior was so contrary to what I was exploring and practicing that I was lost. Mark talked early and met all of his milestones, so his antisocial and impulsive behavior was confusing. By second grade, we were told he had ADHD and needed to be medicated or leave the school he was at. On Ritalin, Mark cried all the time and was very disconnected. I took him off of it in a matter of days.
Mark was placed in a new school in a "special" class. His teachers squelched the ADHD business right away. After extensive testing and bringing in three different specialists, they were stumped. A young doctor just out of medical school suggested it might be Asperger's Syndrome. The internet wasn't what it is now, so we had to rely on what we got from doctors and the library, but I didn't care, the info was spot on! I can't even begin to express the relief and the happiness of having an answer.
When Mark was 11, we had Baby No. 6, Nathan. Nathan was a rough birth, and very early on, our oldest son (14 at the time) kept making comments like, "Something is wrong with that baby." At first we just assumed it was a typical teen reaction to having a new baby in the house, but it very quickly became clear that something was wrong. It was clear to his doctors, to us, to everyone, that Nathan was autistic. His doctor called it "full blown autism," more commonly known as classic autism. He was reaching his physical milestones but not his language ones. He would get upset easily, especially by noise and activity around him, which is not easy to deal with in a house full of boys and a teenage girl! While many of the classic autism symptoms were there, he was a big cuddle monster and very attached to all of us.
Justin arrived 2 1/2 years later, and by time he was about 10 or 11 months old, we knew he had AS. He was a little carbon copy of Mark but with a huge sense of humor. I'll admit, the experience was night and day. As similar as they were in those early years, it was so much easier knowing what we were dealing with.
It's been a blessing to have such a big age difference between Mark and Justin. I can't imagine the stress of having them in the same age group. We have never been the follow-all-the-rules AP parents, but I believe that AP has fostered some great things in our children on the spectrum. They're affectionate, and physical contact has often helped calm some whopper-sized tantrums. With Nathan, in particular, massage helps to get him out of a frantic state.
Dealing with outbursts is by far the most difficult thing about having three autistic sons. All three act very different from each other when they're worked up. One insists on talking about his perceived problem until he believes you agree with him or he's made his point thoroughly. It can take upwards of two hours, and no amount of parental manipulation will stop him. It's exasperating! Another son could break glass with the high-pitched screams that come from his throat. It's not just when he's upset. It's when anyone enters "his part" of the family room, approaches him with food in their hands or places something where it doesn't belong. Our youngest dumped some dry ramen noodles in the recycling bag once, and I thought someone was on fire with the screams I heard!
A few years ago, I read a story that stopped me in my tracks. The father of autistic children came across a homeless autistic man in a snowstorm. He was alone and asked for money and a ride to a shelter. It literally caused me to have a meltdown. I sobbed for hours for the homeless man. Then I remembered the taxi driver I recently had who put her young autistic son in a group home so he wouldn't "bother" her unborn baby when it was born, and I cried for him. I cried for every autistic person in history and most of all for my own sons. With five siblings who can eventually care for him, Nathan's got a good chance of having lifelong care, but I'm terrified of the "what if." The majority of the time, I'm able to stay optimistic and enjoy the best parts of having autistic sons, like the fun and the love. But when I read claims that autism isn't increasing, only being better diagnosed, it infuriates me. We hear "autism" so often now that it's lost its power. There is a reason that 1 in 38 children are autistic, and we have to stop it. Until then, every single child in school needs to learn about autism and how to get along with autistic people.