I'm trying to hold him, but he's squirming. The airport lounge is packed with people, and I can feel all eyes on me: the dad who cannot appease his toddler. Brandy sees me struggling, and comes up with a quick fix. She flips over the stroller. She places Jackson next to it. He begins to spin one of the wheels with his hand. He keeps spinning it. Over and over and over. He's completely absorbed. I look at Brandy quizzically. She shrugs.
Jackson was 3 years old at the time, and by all accounts—from mother’s intuition to the experts’ definition—he was on the spectrum. The behavioral psychologists saw what we saw, but were hesistant to make an official diagnosis. His brain is still developing. So much can change in six months. So time passed. His clothes went from 4T to 5T. Birthday candles were lit, blown out and saved in the kitchen drawer. By age 6, the appointments with the behavioral psychologists were over. The autism books came off my wife's nightstand. Our tears were redirected to other things like kindergarten graduations.
It's a mystery we still don't understand. Did he have autism and develop out of it? Did he ever have autism? Slowly but surely, experts are unraveling this developmental disorder, and yesterday a small but groundbreaking study may just prove that Jackson is not alone.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Health, researched 34 individuals ages 8 to 21 who had been diagnosed with autism early in life. The study found that they no longer had the symptoms. The conclusion: Some people may age out of autism. Of course, the autism community is buoyed by the findings, but are cautious to say this is a common outcome.
Let's add to this discussion a study that appeared in Pediatrics last year. It focused on 61 children aged 14 to 35 months who were on the spectrum. Two years after their initial diagnosis, 20 percent of those children no longer met the ASD criteria, which suggests that either the children are improving or were misdiagnosed from the start.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of autism has consistently been on the rise. In 1998, it was 1 in 1,000. In 2002, it was 1 in 150. Today, it's 1 in 88. Is it our increasing awareness that’s inflating those figures? Is something mutating in our DNA? Does it lurk in our air or cleaning products or groundwater?
That’s the thing with autism: There is no pathology. It’s not in the blood. Biopsies don’t detect it. It doesn’t appear when you shine a penlight into the pupil. It makes perfect sense that this disorder is represented in awareness campaigns by a puzzle piece.
For our family, the autism spectrum was like the Alaskan winter. There was no light. The darkness went on and on and on. Then one day, a yolk-hued color broke across the horizon. And it stayed. But we haven't forgotten what the darkness was like.