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June 18, 2012
We the Parents
Where Autism and Optimism Meet
by Melissa Howell

"What is optism?" my 8-year-old asked my husband and me when we were driving recently.

"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 flourish.

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.

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