When my son was born, he was perfect! He had 10 fingers and 10 toes, and was a healthy full-term baby!
He was such an easy infant and seldom cried. By the age of two years, he still couldn’t utter a single word and alarm bells went off in my head. However, my worries were easily dismissed by friends and family, with many saying that he was a late bloomer and that lots of children start talking late.
When he was two-and-a-half-years old, I took him for a hearing test and to my dismay, he had a hearing problem. The audiologist described it as “being underwater and hearing people talking” and said he needed an operation to have grommets placed in his ears.
A few months later, he still couldn’t utter a word so I took him to see a speech therapist and a developmental psychologist. Months of speech therapy didn’t help, and the psychologist diagnosed him with a developmental delay and informed us that he would never be on the same developmental level as his peers. I was advised to enrol him in a special needs school.
Something kept gnawing at me and I felt that something still wasn’t right. It was as if God heard my cries when soon thereafter a small local community newspaper featured an article about autism. My boy ticked all the relevant boxes! I burst out crying and claimed “this is my son!” and took him to the paediatrician, still hoping that I was wrong.
Physically he was healthy, but had low muscle tone (another autism symptom). He was referred to a clinical psychologist, who tested and observed him for three days and, as I feared, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
At home, I broke down. Everything made so much sense! No eye contact, non-verbal, hates being touched, doesn’t eat most foods, hates loud noises, etc. I lambasted myself for being a bad mother and for not listening to my inner voice! If only I had sought help earlier! But, weirdly, I also felt a sense of relief that I could finally put a name to his delay. I dusted myself off, started researching autism and joined a support group for parents with autistic kids.
Through my research I found a place that helped kids with autism, so we went for a consultation. They had a programme which could significantly improve the development and quality of life of children on the autism spectrum, but it was quite expensive and we couldn’t afford it. An alternative was for me to train how to do it at home – he needed four hours of daily tuition. Even though I was studying full time at university at the time, I didn’t hesitate to leave my studies. After a few weeks, I was trained and our home-based therapy started.
Every day, without fail, my son and I would commence with our “classes” and within a month he had a vocabulary of more than 100 words. I literally cried when he called me “Mommy” for the first time, and he could do maths, puzzles and much more! The developmental psychologist was astounded. The boy they predicted would never catch up to his peers actually surpassed them!
However, because of his autistic traits such as not understanding verbal instructions, not functioning well in groups, and disliking being touched, I was still advised to place him in a special needs school. Unfortunately, there was a long waiting list for those schools and he needed to start Grade R.
I took a gamble and placed him in a mainstream school and observed him like a hawk for any meltdowns, distress or regression, upon which I would immediately remove him from the school. Thankfully, his teacher was very sympathetic and understanding. When the second term came around, his teacher requested to see me and I feared the worst.
“With tons of love, compassion and care, my son came into his own. Yes, there is no cure for autism, but their quality of life can be vastly improved!”
Nervous and quite dejected, I went to see her. What happened next totally floored me! She suggested that he be transferred to Grade Two, as he was excelling in all his subjects and she felt there was nothing more she could teach him in Grade One. Teary-eyed, I thanked her profusely, but insisted he stay in his grade, as autistic children dislike change. The same thing happened in Grade Two – they wanted to promote him to Grade Three, but again I declined.
With tons of love, compassion and care, my son came into his own. Yes, there is no cure for autism, but their quality of life can be vastly improved. Fast forward to the present, and he passed his matric with university entrance, and is currently studying and thriving!
My advice to all mommies is to listen to your instincts! You have a unique bond with your child and a mother always knows best!
Written by Amina Leeman