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To My Son on the Autism Spectrum Who Is Extraordinary

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Exactly one week before Christmas Eve, on your due date, December 17, 2014 at 1:51 in the very early morning, you came into this world.

You were everything I had dreamed about (just with a little less hair).

We named you Karter, with a K.

Our early days together were spent learning about each other. You were such an easy baby. You hardly cried and even when babies your age were turning into rambunctious toddlers, you stayed my good-natured, calm little buddy.

A few weeks before your baby sister was born, I was sitting with your Nana and we were watching you play, “Mom, do you think there’s any chance that Karter could have some mild form of autism?” I asked. I think I even caught myself off-guard by asking this. You and I started spending a lot more time together and I had started to notice some things my mama gut was telling me weren’t quite typical. This question had been creeping up in my mind for weeks at that point, but it was always a thought I quickly shrugged off. Voicing my concerns started making them feel more real.

About a month and a half later, I toted you and your newborn sister into the pediatrician’s office. I voiced my concerns to her. You still were hardly talking. You gagged on your food a lot. You weren’t hitting the appropriate milestones that 2-year-olds were supposed to be hitting. I had noticed kids who were younger than you were developmentally surpassing you. It was hard to watch. Your doctor nodded and typed on her computer. She told me I was right to be concerned, which silently broke my heart. We left with a referral to a speech pathologist and occupational therapist. We also left with a referral to a neurologist, psychologist and a psychiatrist; the trifecta which was deemed, “the autism clinic.”

Our first visit to this “clinic” (turns out the clinic isn’t an actual place, just a name for a group of specialty doctors) was with your neurologist. I assured your daddy he didn’t need to take off time from work and we would be OK going on our own. After all, it was just a consult. I answered the millions of questions the neurologist had for me and he watched you play with the toys he had in his office. He had a student with him and at one point I was on the floor with you and you were watching me stack blocks. Instead of stacking the blocks yourself, you continually grabbed my hand and placed it over the block so that I would pick it up, as you normally do when we play together. I heard the neurologist say to the student next to him, “The hand-over-hand gesture is a common characteristic of children with autism.” He continued to talk to the student, but I couldn’t hear what else he was saying over the burning of my ears and face. That was the first time anybody had associated you with autism, and I’m not going to lie to you, hearing it out loud stung a little bit. In that moment I wished your daddy was with us.

At the end of that appointment, your neurologist told me you were most likely on the spectrum. The way he said it was so odd to me. A fact. Just like somebody would say, “The sky is blue.” The only response I could think to give him was, “OK.” In retrospect, it was OK. And nearly a month later, after a confirmed diagnosis, it was still OK. However, in that moment, my world seemed to be crashing down around me. This is not what I had imagined while holding my perfect newborn two years and nine months prior to that day. I felt as though I had failed you, and that everything from that day forward was different, and I felt mad. And I was mad at myself for feeling mad.

That night, your daddy and I did some talking. Well actually, I did a lot of talking and your daddy did a lot of listening. I told him all about what the neurologist had said. The following days, I dove head first into researching everything about autism spectrum disoroder (ASD). The case studies, the symptoms that appear from a very young age, the therapies, the diets, the statistics. Every time I read something that suggested autism was maybe caused by environment, I cried and cried and cried. There were so many “whys” and “what ifs.” Did I do this to you? Did I not stimulate you enough as a baby? You never went to daycare… If you would’ve, would your brain have developed differently since you had interaction with other kids? Did I let you watch too much Elmo? Why didn’t I realize that something was different earlier, when you weren’t talking and you didn’t take your first steps until you were over a year and a half old? Looking back, I don’t think I was upset about you being different than kids your age, since you had an official diagnosis, I was upset at the thought of you struggling. I was upset thinking about the first time you would be teased or the first time you’ll be left-out by your peers, or the first time a group of moms at the playground quietly whisper to each other, “What’s wrong with him?” These thoughts still consume me sometimes and I have to remind myself that it’s not an “autism thing,” it’s a “mom thing.” Good moms in all circumstances worry about their kids.

More and more I am finding that your autism doesn’t change anything. You are still Karter Michael. Karter, who makes me laugh on a daily basis. Karter, who makes my heart ache, because I love you so much and you love me back despite all of my imperfections. I love watching you spin around and around and around and flap your arms when you’re really excited. Your autism is a part of who you are and that isn’t something negative or to be ashamed of. I will spend my whole life making sure you know that you are an extraordinary human being and that you are proud of who you are.

The day your psychologist sat us down and officially told us he believed you had autism, he also told us about his college professor from decades before who also had autism. Although I can’t predict the future or who you turn out to be, I hold on to that. Something I do know, is whether you become a doctor or a college professor or if you end up living with your daddy and me the rest of our lives while you work as a greeter at Target, you have already made the world a better place.

“I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Your works, and I know this very well.” Psalm 139:14

A version of this story originally appeared on Karter with a K.

Originally published: June 11, 2018
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