Acutely aware of Autism

By CATHERINE KIRK CKIRK@DDTONLINE.COM,

While the world is consumed with coronavirus thoughts, my mind these days has been focused more so on my 4-year-old son, Conner.

April is National Autism Awareness Month and it was a little over a year ago when we got his official Autism diagnosis.

When we went to Connections Clinic in Hattiesburg last year for his in-depth evaluation, my husband and I didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know much about Autism and, to be honest, we’re still learning.

At the time when we took Conner to Connections Clinic, I knew he was different than many children. I knew something wasn’t right when he still hadn’t said a single word, he wouldn’t make eye contact, he constantly walked on his tip toes and he didn’t play with toys like other children.

One of the first things people need to know is there is not one type of Autism. According to Autism Speaks, Autism, or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. There is not one Autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because Autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with Autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. If you’ve ever suspected your child may have Autism, there is a plethora of information, including the signs, at autismspeaks.org.

When we received Conner’s observation results, there were numerous pages of detailed writing explaining his Autism, but here’s the gist of it: When it comes to Cognitive Development, Conner ranked as a 12-month-old; with Communication Development, he ranked as a 3-6 month old; for Emotional and Social Development, he ranked as a 9-12 month old; and he was like a 12-30 month old with Sensoimotor Development.

Initially, the answers we received were overwhelming. Although it wasn’t easy to read, my husband and I were grateful because we were no longer guessing and wondering what was going on with our son.

With Conner’s diagnosis, we have been able to take the steps of getting him assistance.

We immediately enrolled him in occupational and speech therapy at the Delta Regional Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine. The nurses he sees are fantastic people and have made a tremendous impact on him already.

Conner has also been enrolled at Head Start, where he has been able to get on a daily routine around other children. Through Western Line School District, he has also been receiving additional therapy with a speech language pathologist. I was elated when his teacher told me he can point out more letters of the alphabet than any other child in his class.

Our son who once wouldn’t even look us in the eye now does, at times. He doesn’t keep contact for long, but having those moments where our eyes lock is a wonderful feeling. Our son who before didn’t say a single word now can say a few words, such as “apple,” “momma,” “daddy” and “bye.” It will be a long time before he is able to speak in sentences, but those few words he says are like music to my ears. Our son who didn’t even know how to hold a utensil can now feed himself a bowl of cereal. Our son who used to not even acknowledge us when we spoke to him will now respond to directions like, “Pick up your cup,” “Walk to your room,” or “Sit at the table.”

Conner still walks on his tip toes, he still covers his ears with certain sounds and he still doesn’t care much for playing with other children, and that’s OK. There is no cure for Autism, but I am so proud of the progress we have made with his development.

The hardest part of the COVID-19 pandemic for us has not being able to send Conner to school and give him the therapy he needs. Like all parents of little ones right now, we have been trying to fill in the gaps while he is at home. And, like many couples, my husband and I both have to work full-time in order to pay the bills.

I often feel guilty I’m not able to give Conner more of my time, but, also like other parents, we are doing our best.

My dreams are consumed with images of Conner speaking and playing with other children. The day-to-day activities most parents take for granted are the hopes and dreams for my son.

Whatever your situation may be right now, just love your children. Hold them as much as possible and teach them what you can. That’s all any of us can do.

Catherine Kirk is managing editor of the Delta Democrat-Times. She can be reached at ckirk@ddtonline.com.