Autism: is my boy happy?

AUTISM: I WAS JUST WOR­RIED ABOUT ONE THING: CAN HE BE HAPPY?

The Citizen (Gauteng) - - FRONT PAGE - Simnikiwe Hlat­sha­neni

My son does not think like ‘nor­mal’ kids. To him, a wind is a thing to hide from.

In June 15 2009, the cra­zi­est thing hap­pened. A child who would later turn out to be on the autism spec­trum was born to a young wo­man who had just been di­ag­nosed as be­ing on the spec­trum her­self.

How lucky can two peo­ple be that they would be stuck for life with the only other per­son in the world who could re­ally un­der­stand them? When I was 13 years old, I read one of my favourite nov­els of all time – The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night­Time by Bri­tish best­seller Mark Haddon. I kept to my­self a lot in those days and books were the big­gest part of my uni­verse.

This was the first time I saw the word “autism” and learnt what it meant. In the book, the pro­tag­o­nist, Christo­pher is a teenage boy liv­ing with the con­di­tion.

The book stoked my cu­rios­ity on the sub­ject. By the time my son was di­ag­nosed, I knew quite a bit about it. I also knew that it was grossly un­der-re­searched and that there was no cure, just a var­ied spec­trum of avail­able treat­ments.

To my son, the world is full of stim­uli that causes parts of his brain to mis­fire and send the wrong mes­sage. He might be hear­ing wind but to him its sounds like a rea­son to hide un­der his bed.

While a psy­chi­a­trist di­ag­nosed me with at­ten­tion deficit hy­per­ac­tive dis­or­der (ADHD) in 2008, I al­ways pretty much knew that I had a way of think­ing that im­paired me in my pur­suit of ev­ery­day tasks.

It was never dev­as­tat­ing, it just meant I had ex­tra things I had to do ev­ery day, like mak­ing lists, wak­ing up ear­lier and go­ing on an­tide­pres­sants and Ri­talin (at some point). My son’s con­di­tion is much fur­ther down the spec­trum – to the point where he does not talk, but in­ter­acts in a se­ries of ges­tures and sounds that com­prise a lan­guage of his own.

His in­abil­ity to be­have like other chil­dren is of very lit­tle con­cern to me. As some­one who has been able to build a ca­reer and a semi-nor­mal life for my­self, de­spite not be­ing able to “be like other peo­ple”, I know that uni­for­mity has noth­ing to do with feel­ing con­tent. The only thing I ever strug­gled with was whether my child could be happy.

Chil­dren are the best teach­ers when it comes to tol­er­ance and ac­cept­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple as hu­man. The dilemma plays it­self out in pe­cu­liar ways.

I spent many of my son’s ear­lier years dread­ing the forced in­ter­ac­tions that come with a child who be­haves con­spic­u­ously dif­fer­ent in pub­lic spa­ces. Adults, some my age and some older, had a very dif­fer­ent set of ques­tions and re­ac­tions to him than the chil­dren we would en­counter at malls, play­grounds and in busy streets.

It would start with something he does when he is ner­vous or over­whelmed. He would flap his hands up and down or cover his ears and as­sume a crouch­ing po­si­tion next to me for in­stance, be­cause he hates stand­ing in line or wait­ing some­where.

A child would nor­mally ask a direct ques­tion. Why is he sad? Is he nor­mal? Can he talk? Can he play? But the adults, whom I sus­pect are well-mean­ing folks who feel the need to fill awk­ward si­lences with more awk­ward­ness, would turn the en­tire in­ter­ac­tion into a per­for­mance star­ring them­selves.

It doesn’t help that I am my­self so­cially awk­ward with strangers. “Oh no, You are so strong, I could

never! What do you give him? How did you give birth, nat­u­rally or cae­sarean? Have you heard of Pas­tor Bushiri?” We do not visit malls much any­more.

Play­grounds are the only pub­lic spa­ces I take my son to on pur­pose. There he is free to be his weird self be­cause the other chil­dren frankly do not care. It moves me to ques­tion this no­tion that peo­ple with spe­cial needs are any more or less mis­er­able than any­one else. Life is chaos and my ran­dom and dis­or­derly life with my son is proof that chaos is nat­u­ral. Turn off the per­for­mance. We are all in this to­gether.

Pic­ture: iStock

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