As a mother of two sons with autism, I spend much of my time online reading about the neurological condition. Statistics and science have never been my strong point, which is why I am grateful for the critical thinker Seth Mnookin, who eloquently shares his take on autism in various medical and scientific journals. Recently he wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about a study published in Nature which points to paternal age as a leading factor in the increase of both autism and schizophrenia.
In his piece, Mnookin breaks down the clinical findings of the study as well as the firestorm of responses it elicited from parents. As a mother, there was a moment of relief for me that for once it was not a study about what I could possibly have done wrong before, during or after my pregnancies. Even so, the study's findings would not apply to my family. I was in my late 20s when both the boys were born, and their dad was only in his mid-30s. Both sides of our respective families are punctuated by very educated individuals bordering on genius and yet very socially awkward. When our boys were diagnosed, it was not a shock to anyone.
Personally, I took the results of the study as I have every other study which has attempted to answer the question, "What causes autism?"
I took it with a grain of salt.
That is not to say I don't respect the science behind these studies, because I absolutely do. But it is the personal relationships I have built with other parents and with autistic adults that have changed the way I view raising children with autism.
I imagine that for some parents the need to know "Why?" is so strong it trumps every thought they have about their child's future. I know this is true because when I'm honest I'd admit I both wanted and needed that question answered after my older son Sam was diagnosed as an 18-month-old toddler. By the time his younger brother Noah was born two years later and diagnosed on the severe end of the spectrum, things changed. I realized I could spend my time and emotional energy searching for the answers to my question or I could get down on the floor with my sons and get to know them for who they were, as they were.
After that, I felt a subtle shift in how I thought about autism, and I realized, contrary to what some had led me to believe, my sons were not broken. Their autism was not an enemy. It was not a disease. Instead, I found solace in their uniqueness and in the way the simplest morsels of everyday life that we as adults take for granted was to them both fascinating and beautiful.
Children with autism are quite often extremely intelligent and highly focused. They have an eye for order and routine, and, while at times that can make everyday tasks difficult, it also brings a number of positives to what most would think of as typical parenting woes. For instance, in my home there is no sibling rivalry. I have never once heard, "Mom, he's touching me!!" or "Mom, Noah called me a bad name!" That is because they are limited in their verbal abilities, but, more importantly, it is that they don't interact with each other. The boys are in a constant state of parallel play. They each do their own thing beside one another but not with one another. Also, my sons see the world in black and white, and the way they speak is consistent with that fact. They don't lie, embellish, or otherwise try to hide something they have done. They also don't tattle on one another. When I see other parents struggling to maintain order with their kids I feel thankful that is one battle I don't have to fight.
I remember a crisp winter day when the snow had just begun to fall outside and as I looked up from my computer screen I realized the boys were silent. As any parent can attest, a quiet child is a child up to something, so I went in search of the boys and found them both laying side by side on the hardwood floor of our living room with their heads touching the glass patio doors—mesmerized by the snowflakes falling on the other side. Instead of returning to my work, I lied down next to them, and in that moment I also was caught up in their wonder.
Today my sons are 9 and 7 years old. They attend the same public school that has classrooms devoted to children on the autism spectrum who are not ready for a fully inclusive education. Sam speaks a number of foreign languages with perfect pronunciation and has taught himself to play the piano and the drums. Noah taught himself to spell using foam letters at the age of 3, and while his favorite activities are those involving swinging, running and jumping, he excels with shapes, numbers and reading.
The study of autism and its complexities have never been more groundbreaking than they are right now, and I am thankful for the many organizations that fund them. However, more than anything I am excited by who my sons are as autistic individuals. But I'm also excited by their futures, as they and others like them challenge society to change its views of autism from something to be feared to an opportunity to embrace and respect neurodiversity.
Sunday Stilwell is a stay-at-home mom of two sons with autism and a writer from Owings Mills, Md. You can read more about her unique family on her blog,Adventures in Extreme Parenthoodand via her social media addictionsTwitter,Facebook,Instagram, andPinterest. In her spare time she likes to sleep and fish with her husband Mike … but not at the same time.