A parent discovers her child is far from typical
Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 21-22
I can still remember the moment it occurred to me, while I sat through my first week of post-secondary school, nearly five years ago: Oh my goodness. Maybe Max has autism?
It was like a light turned on in my mind. I began to see things differently. My son Max was six at the time and halfway through Grade 1. School was such a struggle for him. So many things had been a struggle with Max.
A new baby brings joy and new questions
Max is my fourth child. I often wonder: if Max had been my first baby, would I have been more on top of some of the telltale signs that something wasn’t quite “typical” with him? Maybe I would’ve worried more about the fact that he wasn’t talking until he was nearly four. Or that he hardly ever responded to his name.
I was a busy mom with a lot on my plate. We had four kids under age 10. My thought process was: although Max was the most challenging in many ways, his differences or slower marker points were nothing to worry about; he’d catch up at his own pace. Not always worrying about all the developmental milestones was something I thought I had earned after having four kids.
Those first few years with Max, what did worry me was that I found myself at a loss for how best to parent him. Or maybe I had a little too much confidence going into it. I figured I’d be a pro. I had already experienced one colicky baby, so I knew that after three months things should get easier. His crying would lessen. But it didn’t. Max cried so much. And eating was a huge fight, especially as he got a little older and was eating solids. Everything had to be just right or he’d throw it on the ground or at us. It was comical at times. We tried to stay good humoured about it, but mostly it was exhausting.
When Max was around one year old, my husband was in school studying to become a community support worker. He must’ve been learning about child development because he would occasionally ask me, “Do you ever think Max is autistic?” My reaction was always to roll my eyes and say, “No! He is not autistic!”
The thought of Max being autistic scared me. I think mostly I feared not knowing what our lives would be like with a child on the spectrum. I really didn’t know anything about autism other than what was portrayed in Hollywood.
School years test assumptions
Unlike with his older siblings, we decided not to put Max into preschool. We imagined him crying non-stop, throwing his food, leaving the building or—his newest thing at the time—hiding from everyone. We couldn’t do it. So, you can imagine, when it came time for Max to begin kindergarten, we blamed ourselves for his challenges. Each morning, when I dropped Max off to kindergarten, he refused to go in. We thought it was because he was the only one of our kids who hadn’t been “prepared” for school. It was heart-wrenching for me.
The teacher would try with me for a few minutes to get him to enter. But he would put up such a fight. He’d cry and push me away as I tried to usher him gently into the class. It tore me up inside. I remembered when my older children had started kindergarten. There always seemed to be “that one kid” at the end of the line, crying, resisting and not wanting to go inside—which had seemed so sad. I remembered thinking how hard it must be, for both the child and the parent. I was glad it wasn’t me. And here I was now, with that one kid, kicking at me and crying and refusing to go in.
The classroom environment was a difficult place for Max. He rarely wanted to join in with other students. Teachers said he would go off in a corner by himself, or hide under a table. His speech was also a little behind for a child his age. It wasn’t long before I was approached by the school about the idea of having a school-based team meeting to discuss the challenges Max was having. I trusted the teachers and professionals at the school, so I was in complete support when they suggested Max see a psychologist. I was, however, completely naive about the possible diagnoses they were likely anticipating.
Diagnosis opens a way forward
It would be a year before Max had an appointment with the psychologist, a year in which he continued to receive a lot of extra support in the classroom. During that time, I started thinking of going back to school. I settled on the education assistant program, which I thought would be perfect because I would have the same hours as my kids; I could be home when they were home. An education assistant was the same as a teacher’s assistant, I thought. Again, I was fairly naive. In fact, I spent a huge amount of time in the program learning about autism and how to support kids on the autism spectrum.
When I share the story of Max and his diagnosis, I always say that the way it unfolded was divine timing. We were on a year-long wait-list with the psychologist. When I finally got the call for his appointment date, it happened to fall on the same week I was starting my education assistant program. That first week of school focused on the subject of autism, and it literally prepared my heart and mind for Max’s diagnosis. I was no longer afraid.
Max was the same little guy he was when he walked out of the clinic that day as when he’d walked into it. It was me who had changed. It was me who was changing the way I saw Max and others like him. And so began my own journey to learn not only how to be an education assistant, but also, how to be a better parent for my Max.
Max will turn 12 this year and he’s doing great. The amount of support he needs throughout his school day has greatly decreased, which is wonderful and one reason I think early intervention for our neurodiverse little ones is key. I can say from experience that early intervention is just as important for us parents as it is for our kiddos. If we, as parents, are open to it, we can gain a whole new world of understanding. And when we understand more, we fear less.
About the author
Jessica lives in Kelowna with her husband and four children. She has worked as a Certified Education Assistant for five years at a public elementary school. Jessica primarily works with 10- to 12-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder