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April 23, 2024

Where Every Family Matters

If You’ve Met One Kid with Autism, You’ve Met One Kid with Autism

In support of Autism Awareness Month, here's some words of wisdom from a Nashville dad who has a child on the spectrum.

At a glance, our 5-year-old appears to be like any other child. He’s got an infectious smile and contagious laugh. He’s smart, sweet and affectionate. For fun, he presents his own puppet shows, builds with Legos and makes cakes out of Play-Doh. He loves being outdoors. When he doesn’t get his way, he whines.

He also has autism.   

A fascination with things that spin and light up are part of our son’s world (making trips to our local home improvement store extremely interesting). His current preoccupation is claw machines, so we keep a pocketful of quarters when we’re headed to Wal-Mart or the local arcade. He feels, sees, tastes and hears a bit differently than most kids.

What exactly is autism? There’s no easy answer but, according to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavior challenges. It affects an estimated one in 36 children in the United States today. But the spectrum is vast, with characteristics that vary from child to child. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve met but one child with autism.

Up until about a year ago, our son was mostly nonverbal. He would act out when he couldn’t communicate what he wanted to us. We’d all end up frustrated at whatever was blocking our ability to understand each other. It was probably the darkest time in our lives, and there were moments when we didn’t know if things would get better.

But they have.

Our son’s diagnosis — while a bitter pill to swallow at first — turned out to be one of the best things to happen to our little family. Suddenly, we could let go of the pressure to achieve “normal.” It was liberating. And it allowed us to be better, stronger parents. 

With that “A” word now on paper, our son became eligible for a continuous flow of government-funded services that we would’ve struggled to get otherwise.

Weekly speech therapy, as well as occupational therapy to develop his fine and gross motor skills, are part of our family routine now. Through our local school system, our son started a preschool program and has an Individualized Education Plan. Last fall, we added applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to the mix to help moderate his behaviors. Then there are the extracurriculars. We take him as often as possible to library story time, playgrounds, swimming pools and children’s museums, to name a few activities.

The result? Our son is becoming more verbal every day. We’ve seen improvements with his social skills and emotional regulation. The goal is to transition him this fall into a mainstream kindergarten classroom. (Fingers crossed!)

Still, there are challenges. My wife and I must be ready to react calmly to spontaneous meltdowns that involve hitting, throwing, etc. There are things most families with young kids can do that we just … can’t. Social outings can be stressful. Sometimes we have to explain to people that 1) our son isn’t ignoring them and 2) he can hear just fine. It’s exhausting.

And yet, our son’s autism is mild compared to what many other families experience. We see desperation posts every day from parents in various autism support groups on social media. To those parents: seek out interventions as early as possible, try to avoid the curse of comparing your child with others and focus instead on your child’s personal growth.

Our son isn’t bursting into our room to tell us an in-depth story about trains or airplanes … yet. But we love his personality, we love his energy and we love his effort. Every day, we get glimpses of his genius within. He’s a claw machine prodigy. He’s a budding puppeteer. He’s a Play-Doh chef with a knack for pastries. And when he lets you into his world, it’s beautiful.

 

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About the Author

Michael Aldrich

Michael Aldrich is Nashville Parent's Managing Editor and a Middle Tennessee arts writer. He and his wife, Alison, are the proud parents of 4-year-old Ezra and baby Norah.