Even the most pragmatic people lose objectivity with their children. In hindsight, it’s so embarrassingly obvious. As Cailyn became a toddler, her behavior became our proverbial “elephant in the room.”
The first sign was the lack of communication. I choose the word “communication” carefully because, as we would find out, talking is only a small component of interacting with someone. Eye contact is the most simple and apparent symptom that a child lacks this skill. People are so accustomed to reading non-verbal facial expressions, that it becomes uncomfortable and difficult to interact without establishing the eye “connection.” Cailyn was intentionally avoiding eye contact and wouldn’t even turn her head when her name was called.
At about 14 months old, I began to get my first truly uneasy feeling about Cailyn. I remember being in awe of the suggestion that a child her age could respond to a simple instruction such as “find your shoes.” She was seemingly light years away from being able to accomplish that. Amber assured me that every child develops at their own pace and that we would take Cailyn to a pediatrician (at this point, we all saw a family doctor) to ask about development if she wasn’t talking by 18 months. This was an arbitrary age we picked out for the purposes of pushing our worries to a later time.
Raising Cailyn wasn’t all worry and stress. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Cailyn was an incredibly fun baby. She absolutely loved wrestling with me, being held, and tickled, She’d laugh so easily and found joy in simple things. Although we’d later identify these as symptoms of a larger problem, we used to love watching her sit on the floor, rock back and forth, wave her arms, and scream when she became excited. She’d even run in clockwise circles and just laugh for minutes at a time.
I remember taking Cailyn on vacation and watching her in a play area full of kids. All she wanted to do was run back and forth between two large objects. She was so happy and innocent. As she continued this behavior, her actions irritated a three year old boy, who wanted her attention. He screamed at her first and then ran to her and hit her in the back. This brought out the protective side of me. I probably traumatized that kid. The event bothered me for weeks. To this day, I’m not sure if it was that the boy hit her, or that she wouldn’t just play like the other kids. It was another reminder that there was something different that we couldn’t escape by basking in the joy of her infectious laughter.
There were other signs. Almost too many to list. Cailyn began lining up all of her toys and ordering them by size or color. She started obsessing with wheels and parts of toys, rather than playing with them correctly. We bought her a play oven that made a noise when you shut the door. She soon realized that the door was unnecessary and ripped it off, in favor of pressing the tiny button in the corner to get the desired sound. Perhaps the most bizarre behavior was her preoccupation with words and flash cards. She’d line them all up on the floor with the words right side up. Friends watched in amazement, as she flipped every word back the right way, when we put one upside down. This was all before she was one and a half years of age.
Eighteen months came and went, with us choosing to live in blissful ignorance. My “moment” came during lunch on September 21, 2010, when I was writing an email to Cailyn. Soon after she was born, I set up an email account for her so that I could easily send her notes. The expectation was that we’d capture tiny moments that are otherwise forgotten with time. That day, my intent was to tell her the things that I saw and loved in her as a toddler. I decided that our true personality is dulled with years of assimilation and I wanted to share what I observed her to be, before she was diluted by the expectations of others.
I never finished the message.
As I began typing about her personality and traits, my curiosity got the better of me. I began to search the Internet.
That night, I came home from work and brought up a page from my research. I nervously asked Amber to come to the computer and read down the screen. It contained a list of attributes, each fitting Cailyn more than the previous. “Doesn’t that describe your daughter more than anything you’ve ever seen?” I asked, with my voice starting to tremble.”What is this?” was Amber’s only response. I scrolled to the title of the page…
“Early Signs of Autism”