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"We Battle Constantly Over Our Autistic Child"

Randi thinks her husband Brett is in denial about their son's autism; he says she worries too much. Can this marriage be saved?

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Her Turn

“Our world fell apart four years ago when Max, who’s now 7, was diagnosed as autistic,” said Randi, 40, a mother of two from Denver who quit her job as an urban planner when her elder child, Molly, was born nine years ago.

“The reality of that label is devastating. There’s so much confusion and misinformation about this condition. Even people with access to good medical care, like us, hit one dead end after another. The stress is just unbelievable. Not only have Brett and I drifted apart, but we’ve also lost every ounce of joy we ever had. This is a man I’ve adored since I first laid eyes on him in my college cafeteria. Yet we can’t even go to a movie anymore without fighting.

“I had a normal pregnancy and delivery with Max, and throughout his first year he hit all his developmental milestones at pretty much the same rate as his sister had. But around the time of his first birthday I just knew in my gut that something wasn’t right. At 14 months our happy little guy started behaving strangely. He’d line up his action figures in a straight line and just stare at them, not moving, for half an hour. Or he’d stand behind a lattice-back chair and deliberately move his Matchbox car in and out of the lattice. If any part of the toy touched the chair, he’d have a horrible tantrum. We learned much later that he was self-stimulating — experts call it ‘stimming’ — which is when autistic children engage in repetitive behavior in order to release the sensory overload that’s built up internally. But when it first started happening, I was upset and frightened.

“When I mentioned my fears to Brett, he dismissed them outright. In fact, for the longest time he told me I was neurotic. Brett is not a worrier by nature, which in theory is great, since I tend to be too intense. But it was maddening when he’d say, ‘if he’s different, he’s different,’ or ‘he’s a boy — everyone knows they develop later than girls.’ Here I was, surfing the Web for any clue as to what might be wrong, and he was blithely telling me there was nothing to worry about. Once I was so infuriated at his indifference that I actually hit him on his arm. He shoved me right back and we both exploded in rage. I wasn’t hurt but we were both shaken by that episode.

“It wasn’t until Max’s nursery school teacher suggested that we have him examined by a neuropsychiatrist that Brett finally conceded I might have a point. The teacher told us that Max had no interest in other kids and never looked anyone in the eye. He didn’t play with toys in the typical developmental way, either. She explained, for instance, that boys usually drive a toy truck around on the floor and make truck sounds. Max, on the other hand, might shake the truck in the air. And she told us that making transitions, such as moving from free play to snack time, were ordeals for him — much more than for the other kids in his class.”

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