When We Knew
Throughout my pregnancy with our first child, I would occasionally catch my husband with a pained, anxious expression on his face. I came to recognize it as his worry about our baby. He wanted so desperately for our baby to be healthy and fine, to not have anything “wrong” with it. I assured him that everything would be okay. The check-ups were always reassuring, and, I added, if anything was “wrong” with the baby, we would take care of it, love it, handle whatever challenges came. It would all be okay.
Paul was the one at the birth to catch our baby (supported by the midwife). I remember the tenderness, the split-open, blown-over-by-the-miracle-of-birth-emotion in his voice when he said, “We have a little baby girl.” And I looked at him and I saw so much love. And I saw relief. She was healthy. She had all her fingers and toes. Beautiful dark hair, pink, pink skin. She scored high on the Apgar test.
I remember filling out the little generic intake forms at the well-child visits. I felt so smug. I knew exactly what they were screening for. “Is your child saying ‘ma ma’ and ‘da da’ and ‘ba ba’”? Check. “Can your child say 3-6 word sentences?” Check. “Does your child make eye contact?” Check. “Does your child smile?” Not often, but check. “Can your child crawl... walk?”... Check, check. For the longest time, even with her spirited, intense, sometimes rigid and unhappy ways, I never worried that she was Autistic. Yes, she baffled me, but I thought I knew about autism and the ways it presents in children. I thought of her as a colicky baby. A very difficult (sometimes impossible) to soothe baby. An intense teether. A willful two-year old, an “asserting her space” three-year-old.
When she was three years old, we started her in a three-day a week, half day, completely outdoor preschool program with a strong, wise, respectful, devoted teacher in her 70's at the helm. There were only five other children in the mix. We thought this was the best possible fit for her: she tended to do better outside, smaller social groupings were more manageable, and we had the most wonderful teacher we could find. Indeed, it was an ideal setting, but it still turned out to be hard for her, and increasingly so as she continued there for a second year when she turned four. I remember conversations with her teacher, who had admitted to me that in her many decades of experience, she’d never met a child like mine. While it’s nice to have your child’s teacher see them as exceptional, it’s worrying, too. More and more, I started to see that this wasn’t just a phase of some kind or other.
One beautiful late spring day still sticks in my mind. The parents and children of this preschool group all sat together in the shade of an apple orchard eating a potluck picnic together. The children gathered in the center of the circle on blankets and the parents were behind them and a ways back. There was excitement and cheerful voices asking for food as we all shared what we had brought. Rosie wanted to be with her friends, so she was on the other side of the circle from me. But when I looked over at her, she was there, near friends but more physically distant than the others were from each other. And she looked as if she was a million miles away. While the other children eagerly piled their plates with a variety of beautiful foods, there was my daughter, a vacant look on her face, holding a plate as if it were a foreign object, with one plain piece of bread on it.
I couldn’t un-see that scene. Yes, we all zone out sometimes, sometimes we prefer a little personal space or need breaks from group settings. But this was different. I saw it was different and I felt it was different and I had to acknowledge to myself, in a way I wasn’t able to until that point, that it was different. She was experiencing this social setting unlike her peers. On the drive home, I choked back sobs, and grappled with how to start to wrap my mind around this new way of admitting our reality.