"What is optism?" my 8-year-old asked my husband and me when we were driving
"You mean optimism?" I replied.
"No, optism," he insisted.
"Well, optism isn't a word, so you must mean optimism," I confidently assured him.
He thought for a minute.
"I mean autism. What is autism?" he asked.
At this question, I paused. A lot of answers flashed through my mind: it's the reason you
didn't talk when you were two and had to have speech therapy to help you speak; it's
why you were completely obsessed with candles and fans when you were a toddler and
when all the other kids would be playing and having a good time, you would wander the
house collecting every candle you could find, and spend the rest of the time lining them
up just so; or why you would spend hours staring at a spinning fan; it's the reason you
have had a difficult time having good friendships, and as recently as second grade spent
recess with the teachers rather than playing with friends.
But what I said was something along the lines of, "It's a condition that some people have
that makes some things difficult for them."
And then his real question came out, strong and clear: "Do I have autism?"
I like to think I didn't pause at this one.
"Yes, son, you do."
Here he was, on the cusp of turning nine, and we had not ever told him that, at the age of
three, he was diagnosed with autism (at age two he had been diagnosed with pervasive
developmental disorder). I was completely unprepared for his question.
He should not have heard this from a friend (although how the friend knew - and then
told him - I haven't a clue).
I still struggle with whether I should have told him earlier. For right or for wrong, I am a
mom who pushes my children and sets the bar high, and although I needed the autism
"label" to get the services and assistance that he so desperately needed, I didn't want him
to use the label as an excuse, or to focus on being "different." But on the other hand, I
was devastated that he heard it from someone else. I felt like a major mom failure.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and those who have autism can fall anywhere on the
spectrum, from severely affected to high-functioning. Connor was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. But when we received the diagnosis, the high-functioning part didn't
fully register. All I could hear over and over again was the "autism" part.
Do you have moments in your life that seem to be stored in a different place from other
memories? I remember receiving the diagnosis. I remember the drive home with my
husband, and his supportive words that everything would be fine and Connor was still the
great kid we knew him to be. But what I really remember is the phone call to tell my
parents the official diagnosis. I couldn't bring myself to say the word, for a precipitous
volume of tears kept getting in the way.
This one word, autism, led to other words: Friends. College. Mission. Marriage. Career.
Family. But in actuality, these other words were questions.
Now, a mere six years out from that diagnosis, I know we have already answered
whether he will be able to attain these things. And it's a resounding, "Yes," which leads
to another question: How?
I am an advocate for the importance of early intervention for kiddos with autism or
anything else that requires therapy and intervention. The earlier the help, the better the
outcome, I believe. I am grateful that Connor received speech therapy, preschool services
and special education assistance from a young age. That has undoubtedly helped him
I like to think that we, as his parents, through trial and error and many prayers, have
played some small role in helping him. And, I have come to understand how much
maturity has played its part. He seems to figure out what his trials are and in his own
time, works them out. He amazes me.
Although an autism diagnosis requires behaviors in each of the categories of delayed or
disordered communication, social reciprocity and fixed or repetitive behaviors, from
there it truly is a wide spectrum. Like snowflakes, no two kiddos with autism are exactly
the same. And there is a beauty in this, and it creates a constantly evolving picture.
Fortunately, I think the timing of him becoming aware of having autism worked out just
fine. We have had some very good conversations about it. He is a smart boy who has
matured significantly, and I think he has come to understand that there are some things
that he struggles with that others don't.
But on the flip side, others have struggles that he doesn't, and he has some remarkable
strengths and talents that are real blessings in his life - and in the lives of everyone who
knows him. It has been a really open and beautiful dialogue about how no one on the
earth is perfect, that we all have things with which we struggle. Some of those things just
have an identifiable name.
In short, I have been truthful, but have not made a big deal out of it. Because, you see, it
no longer is.
Yes, my son has autism. But I have optimism. Together, we have optism. And that can
take us to great places. I have no doubt it will.
Melissa Howell was born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. She has a degree in
journalism from the University of Minnesota.
As a single 20-something, she moved to Colorado seeking an adventure. She found one, first in
landing her dream job and then in landing her dream husband; four children followed.
Upon becoming a mother, she left her career in healthcare communications to be a stay-at-home
mom, and now every day is an adventure with her husband Brian and children Connor (9), Isabel
(6), Lucas (5) and Mason (2).
In addition, she is a freelance writer and communications consultant for a variety of
Melissa serves as Assistant director of media relations for stake public affairs and Webelos den leader