Kate E. Reynolds

  • Framed

    I’ve been doing a bit of ‘life laundry’ recently. In the process I fell upon a framed photo of my son at a few days of age. I remember the midwife being astounded that he could raise his head clear of the cot mattress on the day he was born. At the time I was told he was strong because he was two weeks overdue and a huge baby (nearly 10 pounds in weight). With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s clear to me that this unusual behaviour was a sign of his autism.

    Jude was a quiet baby. Older relatives told me this was typical of boys, how lucky I was to have such little crying and that I shouldn’t complain. I didn’t. I took their word for it. He gave eye contact to me without difficulty and smiled readily. He was physically quite able, as a toddler leaping around the sitting room, seeming quite noisy at times. What I was missing was that he was creating noise with his actions, not making sounds with speech.

    One piece of video footage I remember clearly. You can hear my voice calling repeatedly for Jude to turn around for me to film his face. I call and call his name but he doesn’t respond at all. He doesn’t avert his gaze at all from the sand in a small sandpit we had in the garden. Knowing nothing about autism, I assumed he was concentrating hard. It did cross my mind that he might be having absence seizures, for which his 5 year old sister was being medically treated at that point in time. Once I’d observed him over time and felt that wasn’t the case, I relaxed and thought little more about his lack of response to his name.

    Another piece of the autism puzzle, which I overlooked was an episode at a crèche where I was briefly working. Jude found a box of toys which he hadn’t seen before. This was a great advantage of working in the crèche; my son would experience different games and toys and have company, now that his sister had started school. He greeted the box of toys by throwing every toy high into the air, laughing maniacally as he did so. I scurried around, putting them back in the box initially then resolved to simply gather them up because Jude was unstoppable in his mission to continue chucking them about the room. Of course, the danger to other (much younger) children highlighted the whole incident. One of the helpers was very concerned and asked if he did this often. When I thought about it, I realised that he did.

    Jude’s speech was the greatest deficit, though. He made noises with his mouth but nothing that remotely resembled any words I said. His sounds were a drone unless he was trying to verbally get my attention. As a rule, he would guide me to what he wanted or point. When he used his mouth to make sounds, he produced what appeared to be the vocal lilt of a sentence but it contained not one comprehensible word or even part of a word.

    Not long before Jude’s third birthday, the health visitor came for a routine check of his development. I asked about his lack of speech and was told how ‘interesting’ the difference was between boys and girls in their speech development. Evidently boys were slower at producing words, they had far greater spacial skills and fewer linguistic skills. The health visitor even suggested that I was spending more time talking with my daughter ‘girl to girl’ and my son was missing the stimulation of my talking with him. I vowed to devote more time to his speech. When Francesca was at school, I tried to engage Jude. It felt like water running through my fingers. I spoke, I introduced highly visual children’s books or toys and Jude wandered off after a few moments, not even minutes. Alarm bells rang.

    As my sister, Lesley, put it “Any of these odd things individually wouldn’t be a problem, but the whole package (of Jude) looks like there is something wrong.”

    I collared a speech and language therapist who gave me two simple exercises to do with my son. I realised later that they were to test his imaginative play and his understanding of the spoken word. He failed both outright. A home visit by the same speech and language therapist assessed him as being ‘on the spectrum’, a phrase that meant nothing to me at the time. The word autism did; it spelt a lifetime of possible disability.

    Yesterday I threw away the photo frame I mentioned earlier. It had a small baby building block in relief on the edge of the frame. Instead of the letters ‘A B C’ as one might anticipate, it took me some years and reading about autism to realise that, weirdly, the letters on the block were ‘A S D’. I’ve kept the photograph. For some years after Jude’s diagnosis I couldn’t bear to look at any ‘before diagnosis’ photos. This has become easier. But the ASD frame had to go.

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Kate E Reynolds - blogging

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