It could always be worse.
I’ve spend the past several months preparing myself for this particular moment, one both begrudgingly expected and unwelcome. The former descriptor is due to a long process of reluctant observation — I have twins, and they reached two, and steadfastly refused to talk. Or, at least one did; the other babbled, and looked to her brother for cues that rarely surfaced. He had traded talking for a terse and focused OCD, tracing lines across our countertops and along our walls with his toy cars, and collapsing into fury when someone interrupted his path. Which she did, whenever she could. Something about it struck her as hilarious.
My kids weren’t talking when they should. Thus, this moment, and its begrudging expectation — he might be autistic. We should get him checked. I suppose the latter “unwelcome” speaks for itself.
Over the past eight months, my kids had been checked, and re-checked, and examined, and observed, leading, finally, to this particular moment. It is, harshly, one of the most important moments of your life, promptly dividing it into two portions — that before the diagnosis, and after.
The lead-up to this had been a while. For the lucky (…lucky) parents who suspect their child needs help, early intervention is something of a nauseating blessing. You know, at the very back of your mind, that these kind people visiting your home are the result of the right call for your kid — an early, but necessary, right call. Maybe. Maybe you’re overthinking the whole thing, and putting too many labels on too many people far too early, the summation of a life and maturity in an age where, information at the ready, we judge too quickly, and wait too little. “You’ve labelled him too soon;” “you’re worrying way too much about this;” and so forth — the doubts of those who always thought your child was fine begin to surface, and angrily congregate, and all I want to do is get these people the hell out of my house, and please stop examining my kid.
But I don’t say it. Nor my wife. There’s a sober realization awaiting, as your child fails test after test after basic damn test. He can’t even find the crayon. Mind you, the crayon is behind a glass plate. He doesn’t even realize he’s supposed to find the crayon.
Both kids are tested for months, and given therapy for months. And while we all have our suspicions, the official diagnosis can’t come until age 3, when they are ready to enter the public school system as special needs children. Then will come a period of observation and analysis, and a committee will make recommendations, and a label that will simultaneously help and hinder your child will sear its way into his history. Autism. Dammit.
Our comfort at this time is her, who displays none of the abnormalities that he does. We suspect, as do the therapists, that she is just copying him. Her eye contact is good. She plays games. She understood that, at least, she was supposed to find the crayon. Thank god for multiple children — only one needs help. It could be worse.
There’s an unsettling comfort in those four words. I find myself repeating them as I loose my children in a room full of others with special needs, each worse in appearance than my own child. It’s the first in a series of observational meetings, where experts watch my children play, submitting their behavior to a harsh and loving judgment. I, however, am watching the other kids. It could always be worse. I wonder if other parents are playing this very same game, one in which their children are both the comparative measure of genetic success and the simultaneous altar upon which fearful dads sacrifice worried futures. He’s got sensory issues, but at least he’s not full-on autistic. He’s autistic, but at least he can walk. He can’t walk, but at least he’s not permanently attached to a machine.
It could be worse. Count your blessings.
Parents with better moral underpinnings might find this thinking repulsive. I will, too. Later. For now, though, it’s an odd comfort, only slightly undercut by the fear that other parents might be looking at my boy and thinking that, yes, it could be worse.
The poor child that prompted the Walking Comparison tries to have a discussion with my boy, and fails. “I don’t think he likes me,” he confides. I secure his confidence: “No, it’s okay — he just doesn’t talk.” The irony of this exchange completely escapes me.
The playtime continues for about an hour. In a week, and after pages and pages of questions to answer, I find myself surrounded by several experts, each giving detailed notes of their observations over the past week. The verdict is harsh, but expected — your boy is autistic. Please prepare yourself, because the majority portion of your future will be spent handling this verdict.
It hurts. But I’ve been prepping for this. I have advice, and friends, and help, and a pool of experts to offer advice. By all comparative measures, I’m privileged. I’ve forgotten, though, that this meeting was about both of them.
“Your daughter, too.”
Autistic twins. For a moment, I’m dizzy.
Could be worse.