December 2, 2023

Column: “That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” The Diagnosis

8/31/20 “That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” Chapter 12 “The Diagnosis”
By Bruce Williams

Bruce Williams

Around age 2 ½ we began to become concerned about our son’s lack of speaking skills.  He was only using about five words and generally communicating by pointing effusively at whatever it was that he was interested in at the moment.  His pediatrician at the time, the diminutive Dr. Short, suggested with furrowed brow that we perhaps have him tested for any variety of learning disabilities, cautioning us not to be too alarmed—that it might merely be a delay as is common in boys, the slower developing of the two sexes.

My wife was unable to make the preliminary appointment due to work—after all, it was a mere formality just to get the referral for the true specialist—the first appointment she had ever missed in the build up to what was quickly becoming a sleep-depriving case of worry about what might be going on with our beloved boy…our salty, baked Bean.  We arrived and in the two of us went, just he and I, me pulling him by the arm and him leaning in the opposite direction, our familiar tug-of-war—a tango we repeated every time we would go or do something that he wasn’t particularly interested in.

As I got him inside for observation I was instructed to just sit silently by as they ran a series of what seemed like mundane tests, the two earnest young square-jawed ladies gently angling instructions at our indifferent progeny as he would respond to some and not others of their inquiries with his usual stoic machinations.  I was just pleased that he wasn’t screeching at these unknown, severe women, rolling around on the floor in defiance as he was wont to do until the whole thing was aborted.  Eventually the test ended, and they left the room for a bit to put their heads together and decipher their findings.

Shortly thereafter they came back in and delivered the not wholly unexpected but wildly unprepared for news: “Autism” they said affirmatively.  “Well, will he eventually get better?” I asked, my voice unexpectedly cracking as I attempted to keep it together, not knowing at the time the naivete of my question.  They were purposely vague–he could achieve this or maybe only get to here or there–their voices began to cloud in a mist of unknowns, a sea of lost expectations and aspirations for my (then) only child, my son.  They continued droning on as I thought about all the lost football games I’d never attend, all the whispered derision we’d be forced to endure as my son quirkily floated through life, ambivalent to his surroundings as he chased imaginary butterflies or whatever it was autistic kids did.  I bundled him up in slow motion, was handed my referral paperwork for the specialist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, and sent unceremoniously into the cold air outside.

Half-catatonically I got him buckled into his car seat, just then thinking about how I was going to break the news to Michelle, my big-hearted, quick to tears, sweetheart of a wife.  I pulled out, looking in the rearview mirror at my boy, with his big, innocent blue eyes absentmindedly staring out the rear passenger window—what was he thinking?  I could only imagine.  I made it to the first stoplight before I lost it, openly weeping in full view…crying for the first time in years at the sheer helplessness of what our future now held and in fear of what I felt I had lost in the span of a half hour on a routine Thursday afternoon.

Every time thereafter that I had to explain what was going on to our families I would weaken, my voice quavering less and less with each telling after the initial joint breakdown with my wife.  My sister called me at work and asked me if I was okay, and I felt myself stiffening—finding some hidden resolve in my spine as I began to talk more openly about our challenges.  Over time, I grew more defiant, especially if anyone chanced to offer their pity…he wasn’t a source of pity—he was just a little different is all.  He might like to line up his Matchbox cars in parallel lines instead of vroom-vrooming them up and down the length of the dining room table.  Sometimes he would get at car level and “stim”—swaying side-to-side capturing the angles and vantage points from a new perspective (which he eventually outgrew).  Different, not wrong, I thought. And utterly fascinating.

As time would pass, I would come to embrace his uniqueness and learn to navigate his self-harming episodes and meltdowns—and in time become his advocate and bully squasher.  And he eventually did play flag football–and even scored some touchdowns.  He made baskets on his basketball team, too.  He loved to create his own versions of Monopoly and was quite the visual thinker, able to construct things from memory to a degree I couldn’t comprehend, even as an adult.  By the age of 14 he’d surpassed all those early, dark-clouded expectations, keeping pace at an 8th grade level if only with a mix of B’s, D’s & “passes”.  He would become an insightful boy, full of poignant reminiscences that would often make me full stop and think, smiling bemusedly in awe and thankful for his particular uniqueness; to be dignifiedly protective of his right to his own individualism. He exhibited some level of savantism, reciting the specific day, date and time of significant and insignificant events in his life, as long as they involved him to some degree.

Our families enveloped him, over-loving him for his specialness, his aunts, uncles and cousins embracing him with big bear hugs and toothy grins.  He made friends, had sleepovers, ate his handful of particular foods, swam, watched SpongeBob over and over until I, too, knew every episode by heart, wrote long exposes about the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s and the Megalodon, an extinct, gigantic prehistoric shark.  The “apex predator” he would ominously recite as he delivered intricate killing statistics like he was telling a campfire horror story over s’mores.  Or he’d blurt out to the nearby Sumner Fred Meyer patrons that they were all likely to die in the event of a Mt. Rainier eruption because they unfortunately resided in the lahar pyroclastic plain.  He was our agent of change, moving our little family in unexpected directions, teaching us untold patience, humility and gratitude…and the ultimate value of kindness and inclusivity.