At some point during your journey as a father, your child is going to do something that makes you wonder if he is developing “normally.” I use the word loosely, because every child is different, and every new pairing of DNA results in a unique combination of genes that has never existed before nor will ever exist again. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself wondering at times if your child is developing typically, or if it’s time to seek out professional help. Read on to learn this father’s experience with the fear of autism, what we did, and how it turned out.
My wife is a very loving person with a classic “Type-A” personality, and tends to be more of a worrier than I am. She has dealt with anxiety most of her adult life and it manifests itself in different ways at different times. I tend to be more laid back, and more of a “go-with-the-flow” kind of guy. I prefer to let our son learn about his surroundings organically, by exploration, while she would prefer a controlled environment designed to expose him to cause and effect. I don’t believe that either preference is superior to the other. They are different and they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Her method has the advantage of being structured, and therefore there are no surprises. My method is more adaptable and its “off the cuff” nature makes it more suitable for “real world” scenarios. Neither approach is ideal for all situations all the time. That’s why, in this father’s opinion, it takes two parents to raise healthy children; to set them up for success and empower them to achieve their fullest potential. (Read my article https://mistermommy.com/the-importance-of-a-father/ for a more complete take on my opinion about the critical role that fathers play in their children’s lives.)
One of the benefits of having a Type-A person as a partner is that you’re less likely to be blindsided by the inevitable
curve balls that life throws you. I can’t tell you the number of times my wife’s foresight has saved me headaches and strife. However, this level of foresight is often at the expense of our collective peace of mind and her serenity, especially when it manifests as what I’ve coined as “vicarious health anxiety” for our children. Many people talk about postpartum depression, but many women also deal with postpartum anxiety, and women who have preexisting generalized anxiety are more likely to see an increase in the number and severity of symptoms postpartum. I mention these conditions because if you notice your partner experiencing things like constant worry, sleep problems, racing thoughts, unfounded fears, etc – something may be going on that they need help with.
If you Google anything your child does, and scroll down far enough, you’re likely to see a foreboding word somewhere on the page: Autism. My wife first began wondering if our older son TJ was on the spectrum when she Googled milestones. As new parents, we didn’t really know what the typical child should be doing and when he should be doing it. She wanted to make sure that he was hitting the milestones that he should be so we could check in with the pediatrician if he wasn’t. For our son TJ, the first milestone that she questioned was eye contact. Infants generally start making direct eye contact between 6 and 8 weeks. She wasn’t sure if he was actually making direct eye contact, and if he was, if he was doing it as often as he should. So she then googled “infant lack of eye contact.” The first result that comes up is “Avoidance of Eye Contact: An Early Sign of Autism,” so she read it – this was her downfall. If you Google something that your child does that’s even remotely atypical, be it a particular finger placement, a tendency to play with toys a certain way, or only certain toys, I can guarantee you that you’ll see autism spectrum disorder somewhere on the page.
My wife then started to monitor TJ’s eye contact. While he was breastfeeding, he often times wouldn’t look into her eyes. She described him as “looking over her shoulder.” This concern led to more googling. If you find yourself or your partner doing this, you should stop, close/turn off the computer, and talk to your pediatrician instead. She read more about symptoms of autism, and then started to wonder about other things he did or didn’t do. Since children with autism often have trouble with communication and social engagement, things like his general aloofness and lack of separation anxiety (Rowan, his younger brother, literally cries if he’s put down for five seconds) became concerns.
Additionally, TJ didn’t have a word that he knew by a year old (not even “mama” or “dada”). This was probably one of our biggest concerns. All the literature that we read on childhood development clearly indicated that most typical children have a word that they use regularly by one year of age. All of these things, when combined with my wife’s anxiety, led to months of her going back and forth and wondering if he could be on the spectrum. Her fear was so strong that I began to worry, too.
This left me in a very challenging position as his father. A small part of me felt almost angry at her for even letting herself think that something was wrong with him; not because of any sense of paternal pride, but because I was helpless to stop the runaway train of worry, concern and emotion that was robbing her of some of the most joyous times of parenthood. A larger part of me wanted to do emotional damage control in order to prepare for every possible outcome. What would our lives be like if he was autistic? How would our relationship with each other change? Would we rise to meet the challenges that having a special needs child presented together and emerge a stronger, closer couple? Or would our marriage deteriorate into a bickering, sniping, resentful cohabitation headed for ruin? The largest part of me hoped our son would be alright. These scenarios played out in my mind, and I found myself trying, impossibly, to emotionally prepare for all of them.
Of course, I wanted him to be okay. I also knew, from my own research, that the exact cause of autism wasn’t known. Often times, I would find myself making the mistake of trying to “reason my wife’s concerns away.” I would say things like, “If he has it, he has it. It’s nothing that we did or didn’t do as his parents that caused it. Or, “Even if he does have it, it’s done now. It doesn’t change anything.” The second one almost caused a blowout between us on several occasions, because my wife thought that I meant that it wouldn’t change anything for him. What I meant, but failed to adequately articulate was, “It doesn’t change anything about the way we feel about him; the amount of love we had for our little/ man.” In hindsight, the predominant feeling I had was sadness. Sadness for my wife, sadness for TJ, sadness for myself. I found myself cringing inside when TJ would do something “strange” and I would see the inevitable look of concern flash across her face. To my chagrin, I learned during a good conversation that we had after TJ was professionally evaluated that she had begun trying to mask the visible signs of her worry to forgo my reaction.
After months of doing our own research, alternating between being cautiously optimistic, and feeling like our son’s future was fated to be filled with specialists, therapists, and their ilk, we decided to have him evaluated. We made an appointment with early intervention when he was around 18 months old. (click here to access a statewide database of early intervention resources from the CDC). Three professionals came to our house for his evaluation. They talked to him, played with him, and talked to us. They made us feel at ease. After about 30 minutes, we had our answer:
“TJ does not qualify for additional services.”
At first, I heard the “not” in that statement, and my already heightened papa bear instincts seized upon that negative. I was filled with trepidation. I cleared my throat, and asked “What does that mean?” They happily elaborated: TJ was a bright, inquisitive, young boy, and that he didn’t need early intervention. His aloofness was just his personality. His lack of separation anxiety? Chalk that up to confidence. His quirky finger placement was just a quirk. His general interest in and preference for things instead of people? He’s a typical boy. His lack of vocabulary? By the time of the actual evaluation he had started using words and had about 50-60 he would use regularly, so nothing to worry about there. Now, he’s a 28 month old toddler who talks non-stop. We tried to count at one point and he has hundreds of words in his constantly growing repertoire.
Let’s play the odds: The odds are, if we’re just looking at the numbers (not any of the other variety of risk factors) that your child does not have autism. According to the most recent data from a 2018 analysis released by the CDC, 1.7% (or one in 59 children) is on the spectrum. That means that 98.3 percent of children do not have autism.
Ask yourself if you’re judging your child’s behavior with an impartial eye (something that, as a father, I find all but impossible to do). Are you playing up (or down) behaviors based on what you’ve read? Are you seeing behaviors that aren’t really there, or aren’t what they appear to be? This is your child. You owe it to him to give him the best start in life possible, and part of that is an unworried, present parent.
If you’re truly concerned about your child’s development, then there are resources you can utilize. Your pediatrician is always there to talk to, and you should feel comfortable enough with him or her to speak freely and share your concerns. Pediatricians are not experts in the autism spectrum, however, so if you are still concerned or your gut is telling you something, you can have your child evaluation at any point by Early Intervention. Early Intervention assists children and their parents with developmental milestones and provides services if there are developmental delays. The CDC maintains a searchable statewide database of Early Intervention providers that can evaluate your child for free, with no insurance necessary. Click here to access it.
I asked my wife if there was anything she knows now that she wished she had known then, anything that she would tell other parents that were concerned about their child’s development. She said that she wished she really had understood that kids do weird things all the time, and that there is no definitive checklist for autism. Take hand flapping, for example: developmentally typical children and atypically developing children at young ages will often hand flap when they are excited in order to express themselves. In other words, just because your child does one or even several things that may indicate that she may have autism does not mean that they actually have it. Try to look at your child as a whole and wait and see how their developmental trajectory plays out.
…your child is still perfectly them! They haven’t changed at all. Labeling something doesn’t change the nature of it, nor does it have any bearing on the future. All labels do is allow people to easily categorize things to sort them. It’s important to define something for what it is, but don’t let this definition limit the potential outcomes of a given situation. If your child has autism, it’s not their defining attribute. It’s just one aspect of a myriad of things that make them who they are.