Autism hit home for our family about 6 months after the birth of our second child, Tessa. She was born only 15 months after our first child, and so it was a whirlwind of excitement, exhaustion, diapers and bottles!
At the time, having both of my children so close in age was incredibly busy, but I am grateful for how it equipped me to recognize key differences in Tessa’s development. I was able to pick up on some of the signals a lot earlier than if she had been my first child. By six months, I had a strong gut feeling that Tessa was not meeting certain developmental milestones. My mom mentioned some of our worries in passing to a social worker she knew, who recommended that we look into autism.
When I read about the early signs of autism, I knew instantly that these explained what my gut was trying to tell me. There are some key indicators of autism in children that often can go unnoticed in their young age. Here were a few that we noticed in Tessa:
- Lack of eye contact – No matter how hard I tried, I could never get Tessa to look me in the eyes or engage with my face. I remember holding her face in front of mine with my hands so that she had nowhere to look except my face, but she still could not look into my eyes. This is one of the first and strongest red flags we had as a family.
- Lack of interest in people and an intense interest in objects – Tessa specifically fixated on circles and the underside of toys. Instead of playing with a toy car in a typical manner, she would simply study the flip side of the car intensely and for extended periods of time.
- Lack of reciprocity and sharing of interests – It was very difficult to get Tessa to engage in play that was interpersonal or required back and forth interactions. She preferred isolated play, and could sit for hours in her playpen without looking for or needing me.
- Lack of babbling, smiling and cooing – At first we thought she just had more of a reserved character, but over time we recognized her lack of smiling and babbling was more serious, and pointed more directly to a lack of interest in engaging with people.
- Lack of response or orientation to her name – For a while, I wondered if Tessa was deaf or struggled with hearing because of her lack of response to me calling her name, even after she was over a year old. However, hearing tests quickly ruled this out. She wouldn’t turn if I called out to her, and it felt often like she was ignoring us.
- Hyper-interest in lights and fans – Tessa’s first interest in a room would be the lights. It wasn’t a typical interest in lights; she had an obsession and with lights and their reflections in windows. I can still remember seeing her at the age of 6 months in her car seat, following the movement of a ceiling fan with her head, around and around and around. Fans and lights mesmerized her for extended periods of time.
At ten and twelve months, we were able to have Tessa assessed by two pediatricians, and both of them confirmed what we suspected. She was the youngest child in our city to receive an autism diagnosis, but the doctors were confident that it matched exactly what we were seeing in her development and what they observed during their extended observations.
Because of her early diagnosis, at the age of 10 months, Tessa began intensive behavioural intervention therapy from a local school that specialized in autism. Through games and play, they helped train Tessa to respond to her name, work on eye contact, and develop her interpersonal skills. These early years of therapy were critical for her, and our hearts still melt whenever we meet any of the therapists who were so integral to her development during those times. Their investment of love and support for Tessa made such an incredible impact on her life.
We are thankful that in Tessa’s particular case, she thrived under early intervention. Today, Tessa is considered to have high-functioning autism. She loves school and has a wonderful community of friends, family and teachers. She still struggles with some of the challenges of high-functioning autism, such as a lack of sleep, anxiety and hyper-focused interests. At times, anxiety can cause her quite a bit of stress (especially when her new baby brother cries!), but she is also learning skills to help her cope with these triggers. Her excitement about the details in life (such as car engine parts!) makes life so much more interesting and beautiful for us as a family.
We feel blessed by what this journey of autism has taught us and for who Tessa is. We wouldn’t trade her for the world! It’s shown us the importance of community -- we’ve been showered with love from our friends, churches and family in numerous ways. People genuinely love Tessa for who she is, accepting all the interesting bits of her character.
This journey has also taught us how much a simple gesture can mean. Tessa loves rockets, and we’ve had surprise snail mail come with interesting space books, beautiful rocket shirts made just for Tessa, rocket quilts, rocket night-lights, and much, much more. Rockets everywhere! Tessa's autism diagnosis hasn't impaired her relationships; rather, its made them deeper and uniquely special.
The autism journey is so different for the many children, teens, adults, parents, and caregivers that walk its path. No single method, therapy or intervention is a “cure”, and when facing an autism diagnosis with young children, parents often have to navigate a lot of difficult choices and decisions. What can help one child with autism, often does not have the same effect for another child, and this can cause a lot of anxiety for caregivers as they try to seek the best answers for their particular situation.
Having children’s care centers in our communities that can support families through these decisions and therapies is so incredibly important! This month, we are honored to be working with you to raise awareness, acceptance and support for those with autism. We firmly believe that every person is uniquely special and created with an important purpose - and we are thankful for how autism brings extra beauty to the diverse world we are all a part of together.
A dollar from every order this month will be donated to Landsdowne Services, our local children’s center that supports children and families with various needs.
Thanks for listening to part of our story of how autism has touched our lives personally. We are so grateful for all of you, and are blessed that together we can give back to our local community!