But denial does not ultimately serve us well. It may keep the pain of truth away for a period of time, but it only serves to make the truth harder to bear once we face it. The most dangerous aspect of denial is that it keeps us from moving forward on a journey that we must ultimately take. I knew something was wrong with my son. But having nothing to compare the experience of raising a toddler, being a first time mother at 46, I did not fully grasp the extent of the problem. And no one – the pre-school teachers and administrators, his pediatrician, other mothers of toddlers around me – ever mentioned the A word. Autism was a topic I had covered once on daytime talk shows that I had produced. I remember the panel was made up of mothers who believed that vaccines had triggered autism in their children. Little did I know that one day I would be one of those mothers, struggling to raise a child with autism.
The first year of my son Wyatt’s life was blissful. He met all the developmental markers. He walked and talked several months ahead of the other babies. He was literally running so fast at a year that he was moved up in his “Gymboree – Mommy and Me” playgroup. Then between 1 and 2 years of age it all changed. After my son had several vaccines at 13 months, including the MMR vaccine, he had a very high fever. Shortly after that the baby boy that we knew began to disappear. Do I believe that vaccines cause autism? No, I do not. What I do believe, and what I have learned from some of the leading doctors and scientists working in the field of this complex disorder, is that environmental factors, including toxins, pollutants, and drugs, and yes, vaccines, can TRIGGER the neurological condition of autism, often in combination with a genetic pre-disposition or a compromised immune system.
I was to learn all this later, after my son turned three. But first I was to spend two years in hell. Two years of my life and my son’s life that could have been different, if only someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and had the guts or the knowledge to tell me my son had autism. The change that happened was gradual, which makes it harder to grasp. At around 2, I noticed he had completely lost the flow of words that had seemed to come so effortlessly at 1. My call to the pediatrician was met with “Boys often have delayed language, we’ll wait and see.”
So between 2 and 3 years of age, I put him in private speech sessions. But his language barely improved. And his behaviors got worse. The tantrums started happening. Then he put his head through our kitchen window. Twice.
My call to the pediatrician was met with “Sometimes children bang their heads when they are frustrated by not being able to talk.” Of course, I was relieved with the response. And in fairness to my pediatrician, I always downplayed the severity of the tantrums. Having grown up with a brother with Down syndrome, the last thing I wanted was to have a life like the one my mother had. In my mind, she had sacrificed her own life for the life of a child. And in my mind, it had almost destroyed her.
Things weren’t so bad. Maybe it was the terrible twos after all.
Next: The worse is yet to come…