Autism: Tara's Story "My Introduction to Autism"
By Tara McClintick
I’ve always LOVED kids. Unlike most of my friends who weren’t sure what route they wanted to take in life, I was confident in my choice to become an Early Childhood Teacher.
My first post-college position was to teach a preschool class for the County MR/DD program. It was here I was introduced to the diagnosis of “autism.” No one told me about it, I found a list of the symptoms while searching for answers.
Most of the kids in my classroom played and interacted as I expected kids to do. A few of the kids, however, did not play. They did not respond to other people in the usual ways. I was concerned because I knew play and interaction are how kids learn about the world.
Yet, these kids were smart. Little, surprising things they would do demonstrated there was a lot going on in those brains. What was my role as their teacher? Obviously language skills and small motor skills were lacking or far behind, and I wanted to know how to help them. I began seeking any information I could find on the autism.
A Teacher Becomes “Mom” After three years of teaching, I began having my own kids. I have been blessed with two boys –Derek and Jake. Both of my pregnancies went smoothly right up to the delivery. Jake, in fact, was an all natural child birth –as he was born 15 minutes after arriving at the hospital.
Despite my begging for an epidural, there wasn’t time! Jake was 8 lbs. 10 oz, so compared to Derek’s 6 lbs.9 oz, he was quite the solid baby. Derek was born 2 weeks before due date, Jake was 2 days before due date.
Especially with my first child, Derek, I was naively shocked at the intensity of the 24 hour care and millions of parental decisions involved. Like every parent, I wanted to do everything right! So, we got all the immunizations right on schedule. I breastfed both kids their entire first year.
I decided to post-pone teaching a while and do child care in my home. To prepare myself for returning to teaching I began working on my Master’s degree in Special Ed. one evening class at a time. My hope was to learn how to be a better teacher for the kids diagnosed with autism.
The Miracle of Child Development Taking care of babies and preschoolers at home could be quite chaotic at moments, but I loved it. It was fascinating to hear new words popping out, watch new skills develop, and watch those curious eyes and hands explore the world brand-new. Derek’s development was like magic. By 2 he was extremely verbal, and quite the drama child. He literally thought himself as “the king” at times and would demand control, “I do SELF!! I do SELF!!”
Jake’s development also moved along nicely up until slightly past his first year. The only concerns I had were oozing red sores on his cheeks that the doctor called “eczema” or “extremely dry skin.” Ok. Why would he just have extremely dry skin on his cheeks? He also had chronic ear infections. Go to the doctor, antibiotic, infection clears up, a week later after stopping the medicine the infection comes back.
They were pretty constant. I figured that I was being a good mom by doing what the doctor told me to do. You hear about kids getting chronic ear infections all the time, so it didn’t seem alarming in my mind. I had no idea how antibiotics could damage the digestive system.
Later I read that a milk allergy could cause eczema, so I took dairy out of my diet. Jake’s eczema cleared right up. Despite these seemingly minor annoyances, he was walking at 10 months just like his brother did. He seemed aware, active, good-natured, and I was deeply in love with him. He loved his mommy right back.
Jake’s cuteness was undeniable, and our entire family was excited about watching every little step of his development. By one year he was saying single words, keenly observing his big brother’s every move, and playing chase games with another toddler I was caring for at the time.
Hearing the Alarm At 15 months, Jake got his MMR vaccine. The changes came in like the tide. Except unlike the tide, they stayed put.
First I noticed he started constantly leaving the activities of kids I cared for and going off by himself. He’d either look at books alone or pace back and forth. He let me read him books, but any amount of chaos or rambunctiousness from the other kids –he was off by himself again.
The words he was using seem to fade away too. Once he excitedly stood up in his high chair, and was holding out his bib which had a picture of a Christmas tree on it. He struggled to comment “tttrrrEEEeeeee.” He had my full attention, and I remember reassuring him, “That’s right, Jake, that’s a Christmas tree.” He continued to try to say “tree” over and over. It kept coming out in various distorted ways. He sat back down with a defeated look on his face.
Another evening he took my hand and toddled to the fridge with me, and we opened the door. “What you want Jakey?” I asked him. He looked at me, opened his mouth, and jerked his arms wildly. No sounds came out of his mouth. He did this a couple more times, then got the most confused look on his little face, and wandered off. I remember saying to my husband, “it’s like he’s trying to talk, but the words are getting lost in there.”
What’s Going On? Jake became more and more unresponsive. I remember one day watching him pace in his room, totally unaware of my existence anymore. I stood and watched him for a long time. In frustration and fear, I began screaming his name. Not a flinch. Not a glance. It was as if he didn’t even hear me. Thus began my journey for seeking answers that continues to this day….
Jake is 13 years old now. He is nothing less than a miraculous gift in my life. I have learned so much about this condition called autism, more generally known as PDD –Pervasive Development Disorder. It is indeed, pervasive. It effects not only every area of a child’s development, but every level of society in profound ways.
How we live, how we learn, how we treat each other, and what we do daily is shaping the future of our world. It is up to society to open our hearts to what these lives can teach us. The impact each one of us has is significant, whether we know it or not.
The aim right now seems to be to help (or even try to force) these kids to adapt to the real world. What doesn’t make sense is – these kids are our real world now. Why can’t we adapt to them? There are so many things we can all learn from the condition of autism. So many ways we can change for the better. These kids may be here to help us. We may need their help, as much as they need ours.
“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
— Marian Wright Edelman
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