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To the Therapist Who Said My Autistic Son Would Never Be 'Normal'

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Dear Therapist,

Something happened last night that made me think of you. Funny how I may not remember your name, but every now and then, I think of you and that day we met all those years ago.

I was so full of hope that rainy Tuesday afternoon when I walked into your office. My son was 2 and had just been diagnosed with autism. His pediatrician recommended that I bring him to you for occupational therapy assessment. She told me you had decades of experience, and knew a lot about children with autism.  You seemed friendly enough and suggested that we sit on the floor. You, me, my son, and two giant blue bags full of promising toys and whatever else you would need for the assessment.

It quickly became very apparent that you were more interested in managing my expectations than in assessing my son. You knew that I didn’t know much about autism back then and wanted to make sure that I knew about “these children” such as my son. And so you told me that many of these children never talk, these children can never develop meaningful friendships, these children will never get a job, will never live on their own, and absolutely never have a family of their own. You said that my son would probably never tell me that he loved me. You would do your best and he would make some progress, but you wanted to make sure that I wasn’t expecting miracles.

I was caught completely off-guard, stunned, speechless. From the moment you started speaking, I had not said a single word.

Maybe you took my silence to mean that I was receptive to the information and wanted more. You went on but I didn’t hear you. I wanted to get out of there but was still glued to the floor by my historic loyalty to medical and allied health professionals. I’m a scientist, so we are kindred spirits.

My son rescued me. When he began to fuss, it was further proof to you of just how difficult these children are.  You mentioned that the assessments would take longer because of his autism and you were not sure how much would get done that day.  I was probably being unfair to you, but it sounded to me like you were complaining. I bolted. I gathered up my son and fled as you said something about the next appointment.

Even back then, I could not have told you how I was feeling. I was shaking and angry at myself for being so unprepared. I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  I didn’t have any cry in me so I wept silently, inside.

As I buckled him in his seat, I made a promise to Ethan and to myself that I would never let anyone, no matter what their credentials, decide who he was and what his future had in store.  I  refused to believe that at 2 years old, his future could already be defined as extremely limited. I rejected hopelessness.

Last night, as Ethan was going to bed, he said goodnight and that he loved me. It wasn’t the first time, but it made me think of you, perhaps because in the afternoon I had been sharing his journey.

Yes, the journey has been really challenging at times, but there is also joy, laughter, and accomplishments. So many moments that I’ve appreciated even more because Ethan has had to work so hard for them. Proud moments like playing ukulele and singing for a crowd of staff and volunteers at his school.  He has accomplished way beyond what you were preparing me to never expect. By the way, he did learn to speak, at 9 years old. You should also know that most children with autism do learn to speak and only about 30% are minimally verbal. In contrast to your certainty that day, I truly have no idea what the future holds for him. I do know that he will continue to learn, grow, and develop as a human being.

I want to thank you for your words that Tuesday afternoon all those years ago. I didn’t appreciate them at the time. Your words lit an inferno of stubbornness and determination.  Not only did I put my research training into practice for my son, but I sought and found a loving, supportive and knowledgeable community. I reached out to other parents and to adults with autism. I confirmed what I already felt in my heart that day. That there is no such thing as “these children.”

People with autism are unique individuals and it is impossible to know at 2 what their future will look like.  I was able to identify those professionals who were willing to treat my son as an individual and believed in helping him reach his potential. I am grateful to every single one of them. I thank you because, without our meeting, I may not have been as discerning. You gave me something to work my hardest to prove wrong. Along the way, my son flourished. I became a better mom and a better human. For that, I thank you.

Getty image by waewkid.

Originally published: June 9, 2022
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