Richmond, Va –
(Editor’s note: During Autism Awareness Month, Defense Logistics Agency Aviation employee Paul Vaught shared his thoughts and reflections on raising a child with autism. Vaught, a demand and supply chain analyst, works in DLA Aviation’s Business Process Support Directorate’s Research, Review and Analysis Division in Richmond, Virginia. Learn more about autism through the Autism Society. To learn more about Chesterfield County Special Olympics programs, visit their website.)
As if to show his brother and sisters just how it was done, Christian was born squarely on his due date, all 10 pounds, 12 ounces of him. The fifth child overall and born only 20 months after his twin sisters, he already had quite a few fans at home eager for his arrival. As you might imagine, that first year was a busy one and, if I’m honest, not all of my memories from those months are razor sharp. I do remember, however, episodes in which I was impressed with his early cognitive development. Moments which I put in my mental "back pocket," curious as to how he would unfold in the years to come.
Even so, a few months after his little sister was born (yes! No. 6!), when he was around 18 months old, he began the regression. His command of the language, which had been quite good, deteriorated to nothing. His appetite, which had always been noteworthy bordering on spectacular, was basically now only dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. I’m not saying dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets were his favorite, I’m saying if the chicken nuggets weren’t shaped like dinosaurs, he considered them inedible. He withdrew from his siblings and played mostly by himself – or played at the same place at the same time as his siblings, but not interactively with them (which I now know is called parallel play).
Thinking that perhaps he was having trouble adapting to his little sister supplanting his position as “baby,” we thought that he was going through a phase – until we took him to a child development specialist where he was initially diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which is an Autism spectrum disorder, and later as fully autistic.
“Does Christian play with others?” “Does Christian eat less than five different foods?” “Does Christian walk on his toes a lot?” “Does Christian ever jump?” It’s all so obvious now, but back then we just thought he had some individual quirks. We were told “Christian’s brain is wired differently.” During that first visit, the doctor warned us that he may never talk; he may never be able to care for himself. So there it was, laid out on the table for everyone to see – we felt every parent’s nightmare had just become our reality. It was heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, in a sense, autism became Christian’s superpower. As a 2-year-old, he was able to complete puzzles at the level of a 7-year-old. We also found some of his senses were heightened, like when his teacher took him outside and he told her a helicopter was coming. She looked around at clear skies. A couple of minutes later, a helicopter appeared on the horizon just as Christian had predicted. He also has a weird facility with knowing specific dates of random occurrences – like months later knowing the date we had watched a given YouTube video or the date some movie had been released. All of which were cool, but, unfortunately, just like in the movies, his superpowers came with a dark side.
He had trouble navigating unwritten social rules, which led to him asking some pretty verboten [forbidden] questions. “Why are you SO old” and “How much do you weigh” come to mind – to which one good-natured woman answered, “about 10,000 pounds.” This, mercifully, seemed to satisfy his curiosity. Among those unwritten rules of which he ran afoul are “don’t give your opinion to people unless you’ve been asked” -- too many times to count -- and “don’t bellow in pain in public” which I never thought of as being a “thing” until I took all the kids to get gelato at a local super market café. We were all sitting there having a lively chat when I’m hit with this ear-splitting moan! I thought someone had sounded the Horn of Gondor! [The Horn of Gondor is a horn that Boromir carried with him during the events in The Fellowship of the Ring novel by J. R. R. Tolkien].
Shocked, I looked around to see where that noise was coming from and it was Christian! He was having his first brain freeze and was sitting there literally full-voiced, howling in pain without a second thought of who might hear him. I suppose, in some ways, his biggest struggle is not being so transparent to those around him.
Today, I’m proud to say that Christian, now over 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, not only talks, but speaks geek with the best of them, whether it’s talking about video games or film or even Legos. He is constantly making up his own puns and jokes, much to his sisters’ chagrin, and is sure that he’s the funniest kid in the family. He knows he has some challenges ahead, and, as an eighth-grader, does worry a bit about going to high school. After that, he’s concerned about what he will do to support his future family. He still unconsciously reaches out to hold on to the person next to him while he’s walking, so that he can anchor himself in space, but he is able to jump now and recently competed in the standing long jump event at his most recent Special Olympics.
Christian understands about neural networks and how the brain creates those to facilitate functions, good or bad, which it does regularly. We try to break the autistic networks and create new, healthy ones by doing the opposite of what his autism prompts him to do, which can be a super uncomfortable process. Through this method, he has forced himself to try new foods, again and again, of which he now eats a wide variety. He still tends toward structure and order wherever he can find it, but is learning to adapt to change and uncertainty. Against great odds, through faith, prayer and a lot of hard work, Christian has managed to show the world what is possible.
I’d like Autism Awareness Month to give us an excuse to be extra mindful of the fact that those whom we see as a bit quirky, a touch weird, or just seem maybe a “half a bubble off level” have all of the hopes, dreams and desires as the rest of us, but just have to work harder to make it happen. Our acknowledgement, interaction, understanding, kind words and encouragement are the building blocks that make it that much easier for them to get there.