My son's teacher was concerned with his avoidance of class activities, inability to follow directions, and his daily walks away from the playground, climbing the hill behind the school, talking to himself. She was frustrated with his desire to be alone. He showed no interest in other children. She called in Ms. Penland, a special education instructor who was qualified to administer tests. We had been in denial over any seriousness in regard to Jonah's idiosyncrasies and obsessions or his lack of interest in other children. We had hired a tutor to help him learn to read. He wasn't able to learn to do so at school and the tutor had a hard time finding a way to reach him. We told ourselves that everything would improve with time.
Ms. Penland called me in for the test results about a month after the tests were administered.
When I walked into her office, Ms. Penland was sitting with her hands folded on her desk. Her red hair and freckled face, her double chin and daisy-shaped earrings grabbed my attention. She was smiling broadly, looking pleased with herself as she said, "I have a diagnosis for Jonah." I waited for her to tell me. "Your son is autistic," she announced and then added, "and I'm certain he'll never be able to function in a regular school setting."
She was waiting for my response. I did not know what to say. The word "autistic" went through me like a dagger. I could not relate this word to my son.
Years before I had worked as an occupational therapist with autistic children. I lasted in that job for only a month. I resigned out of a sheer frustration over the helplessness I felt in being unable to do anything to help these children. I remembered one little boy in particular who couldn't stop repeating the same television jingle over and over again. This jingle was the only thing that came out of his mouth. I remembered other autistic children who could not speak at all. I remembered how all of the children were unable to connect to the people around them.
"But my son's not autistic at all," I said to Ms. Penland. "I've worked with autistic children and he's not like them at all."
"There are many levels of behavior and abilities in those diagnosed with autism," Ms. Penland said.
"But my son is a sensitive child and he is close to me, his father and brother," I pleaded. I thought of how he never hugged me, how he never let me kiss him.
"How he is with you and your family has nothing to do with how he will be with the world or how he will be as a man. See here…." She pointed to a piece of paper that listed all the deficits she made note of while evaluating Jonah. I had to admit that a lot of what she wrote felt vaguely or, sometimes, very familiar. There were a lot of things in Jonah's behavior that had caused me confusion in the past, like his refusal to speak to anyone but his family from the ages 2 until 4. He also wasn't interested in playing with children or toys but spent hours alone in his room, talking to himself.
"But recently he has shown a remarkable ability to multiply 3 digit numbers by 3 digit numbers and come up with the correct answer immediately," I said to Ms. Penland, in defense of my view of my son. I felt he possessed a rare genius. Ms. Penland told me this was a savant quality and was useless in everyday life. She told me this remarkable ability was nothing more than the over-development of one side of the brain to compensate for a huge deficit on the other side of the brain involved with social thinking, human relationships, verbal skills and communication.
I felt as though I would pass out. Ms. Penland pointed to a developmental chart on the back page of her evaluation. The chart clearly placed Jonah on the autistic spectrum.
I could not listen to her any longer. I was filled with images of Jonah as he was to me now, how much I loved him. I felt myself fall into despair, thinking of his life as a man, his future relationships to others, the future which would await him when I was no longer around to take care of him.
On the long drive home, Jonah became someone else to me. He became the words Ms. Penland spoke and the fear her words instilled in me. I could not go home and face Jonah until I had more information on autism. I stopped at the local library and devoured several books on the subject. I read about young men who ended up alone, unable to function in the larger world. After reading far too much about the loneliness and isolation expressed in these profiles, I had to get home as quickly as possible and hold Jonah in my arms. I thought of the therapies Ms. Penland told me Jonah would need: Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Psychotherapy.
I felt as though I were in the middle of a dream as I walked through the front door of our home. Jonah ran up to me as if I were still the same mother who had left the house to meet Ms. Penland that afternoon. I pressed him close to me, inhaled deeply the sweet scent of his newly-washed hair, feeling that nothing had changed.
He grew impatient with my affection and pushed me away, anxious to list the names of movies according to which studios had distributed them. He was brilliant with categorizing. But I had read, in one of the books, that this type of brilliance was something to be dismissed. It said something like, "those afflicted with this condition are able to categorize, sometimes brilliantly, but conceptualization remains a problem throughout their life."
Something cold and distant overtook me. It was that one word, "autistic." It was, more to the point, my ability to conceptualize that word which lead me away from the present moment with my son. My eyes filled with tears as I listened to Jonah make a list of a dozen movies distributed by "Universal Studios."