My son, Donovan, and I held hands as we walked to our neighborhood park. I talked and he listened and smiled. It was a gorgeous day. The sky was blue and clouds were spread out here and there across the sky. It was a hot day, but not the type of humid that makes you feel sticky, which is expected for the middle of summer in Chicago. I remember every detail of that day because I feel it changed our lives forever.
Although the playground was still out of sight, the abundance of giggles and playful screams told me there were more than a few kids at the park. I started to get a little nervous. Donovan had been diagnosed with an expressive speech delay at 2 years old; he had difficulty holding conversations, which made playing with kids his age a challenge. Some kids wanted to know why he didn’t talk the way they did and some had even laughed at him when he repeated the sounds they made and it made him sad.
I wanted trips to the park to be just as fun for him as they were for me when I was little. I took him out to play before noon hoping there were fewer children around, but we were facing a park full of climbing, running and jumping kids who’d all want to talk and play.
Donovan walked through the park gate, sat down on the bench and stared at his shoes. I knew I could either take him home or help him face his fears — so I encouraged him to play.
He wandered over to a group of kids who were in the middle of a game of tag and within minutes he was running back and forth chasing and being chased. He was having a really good time. Then the game stopped. One of the older boys wanted to play soccer. He set up cones, grabbed his ball and asked if my son could play, too.
Donovan joined the game but he had a difficult time. At some point the kids stopped their game and all eyes were on my son. I knew something was wrong.
Many of the strategies I was using to help my son communicate came from websites for children with autism, so I was becoming increasingly familiar with the traits. I looked at my adorable little 4-year-old son and began to suspect autism could explain his difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
I believe my son experienced his first meltdown caused by sensory overload. I knew it was best for us to leave. We went home and I gave him a bath. After, he sat down to play and within minutes had fallen asleep on the floor.
As he slept, I called hospital after hospital in hopes of getting him in for a developmental evaluation. I was told over and over again there was a waiting list and the earliest appointment was 6 months away. Thankfully, a sympathetic speech therapist found a way to squeeze my son in her schedule just a few weeks after the episode in the park. Occupational and behavioral therapy were not as easy to get into.
My son was diagnosed with autism just after his 5th birthday. I can’t help but wonder how different his life would have been if he’d been diagnosed earlier. Now, as I reflect on the years leading up to the moment at the playground, I can see the subtle clues I missed. Things like not crying after an especially hard fall, spinning in circles without getting dizzy or the cute but unusual way he’d occasionally squint his eyes while walking around the room. These were possible signs of having a hard time adjusting to the environment around him or craving stimulation, which can be seen in autism.
I can’t begin to count the number of people who told me to wait to seek out services for my son; they thought he would eventually grow out of his behavior and one day speak on his own. In my opinion, waiting is not an option. I believe early intervention helps put children on the path to success. As a result of the services he’s receiving, my son is learning how to manage impulses and communicate effectively. Today he’s a bright 7-year-old who loves school and enjoys playing with other children at our neighborhood park.
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Photo credit: Rebecca Sinclair