By, Dr. Kerris Dillon
Blessings come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors. If someone had told me 2 out of 3 of my children would have Autism, I probably would’ve gasped and decided not to have children. Both my older son and daughter have high functioning Autism, but my son Gabe is more severe. I noticed that something was wrong with Gabe when he turned 2 years old and wasn’t speaking any words. The doctor performed hearing tests and found that Gabe was only hearing 10% in one ear and 50% in the other. He assured me that if we put tubes in Gabe’s ears that he would hear 100% in each ear and quickly regain language because of his young age.
At 2 years old Gabe went into surgery and had tubes put in his ears as well as his adenoids removed. He did recover quickly from his surgery, but his language did not. Gabe often pointed at items he wanted and refused to provide the names for them. It was obvious my son was bright because he could program the Dish Network remote to the programs he liked and somehow get rid of television shows the rest of the family watched.
When Gabe got tired each night, he grabbed his blanket and headed to bed without letting us know. When he got up in the morning, he would move chairs around in our kitchen and climb on top of them to get what he needed. He didn’t bother asking for what he needed because he knew we wouldn’t understand him anyway. My husband Mike and I quickly learned that life would be really interesting and different with Gabe. We knew he was unique, but we didn’t know why.
I decided to take Gabe to a free well-baby check, which turned out to be a test of speech, vision, and cognitive skills put on by the area education association. It was here that the speech pathologists realized something wasn’t right with Gabe. They noted his extremely adept ability to stack blocks into the air with the precision of a 5 year old, but he still refused to use more than 1 or 2 words. Those words were not easy to understand.
The speech pathologist asked to meet with Gabe in our home to work with him and learn more about his limitations. She arrived each week with pictures, puzzles, and colorful games for the purpose of helping him to speak. The pathologist noticed his lack of eye contact and asked us to no longer give him items when he pointed at them, but to make sure that he provided the words. It was through this painstaking exercise that we began asking Gabe (sometimes 50-80 times a day) to look us in the eyes as he requested something he wanted. We said words over and over again to help him learn each consonant and vowel. Each request was met with tears and a tantrum, but we finally started to hear him form words like he was supposed to be.
Within a month or two, it became obvious that Gabe wasn’t advancing quickly enough. The speech pathologist asked to sit down with us and offered for Gabe to go to a special school about 20 miles away. He would be with other disabled children his age and have special teachers that would help him to develop his speech skills. So, at 2 1/2 years old we sent Gabe on a bus each day to an 8 hour school where we had no idea what he was doing each day.
After a couple of weeks at school, Gabe’s special teachers knew he had high functioning Autism, but didn’t share the information with us. Autism was still such an unknown and scary word to so many people. His teachers did bring in the Autism testing team and Gabe scored 2 points over the limits to be diagnosed with Autism. I noticed that the speech intervention and eye contact that we’d recently worked on weren’t checked off, which means that if we hadn’t done that he would have been diagnosed.
School and early intervention is what helped Gabe to improve significantly. Within the first couple months of school, Gabe started picking up words and putting sentences together. I couldn’t believe how quickly he was now picking up language and sharing his experiences with us. We still had to try and keep the technology out of Gabe’s hands because the minute he got a-hold of Mike’s I-Pad, he would find a way to set a code on it and lock his father out of his own device. Gabe was a stickler for the rules, though, and when his baby brother Kalan came along he made sure his brother followed suit.
As Kalan grew, Gabe made sure to dictate all of Kalan’s bad behaviors to us. He even stole my digital camera from out of my case and began recording anything Kalan did that was naughty. If Mike and I took a nap in our chairs or on the couch, Gabe knew not to wake us, but would get out the camera, record all of Kalan’s naughty behaviors, and then show it to us when we woke up. He even caught the naughty behaviors of our German Shepherd Neko when he stuck his head into the garbage and got the lid stuck around himself. What blows me away is how straight this picture is and Gabe was only 3 1/2 when he took it. I had just gotten home from a school event and caught Gabe in the act so I let him complete his final naughty dog picture before taking the camera back.
I was super excited when Gabe finally reached the age where he could go to Kindergarten at the school across from where Mike and I taught. We knew all the teachers especially his Kindergarten teacher and I finally knew I could get some inside information into how Gabe was doing in school. This is when we started to learn about how advanced Gabe was in mathematics. It was in Kindergarten that his teacher informed us that Gabe had already figured out multiplication and division on his own. He pointed to the number chart in her room and showed her how eight 8’s followed each row to 64. He then explained to her that 8 sets of 8 blocks counted up to 64 blocks.
I couldn’t believe it when I started asking him questions at home about mathematics. At 5-6 years old, Gabe began adding double digit numbers in his head and providing the answers to us. In the car we would quiz him for fun and Mike and I just gawked at each other when he arrived at the correct answer. What was I going to do with such an advanced child in mathematics? It was good that Mike was a high school math teacher because I knew I wouldn’t be able to teach him advanced math when he got older.
The Kindergarten teacher also informed us that she was trying to stop Gabe from doing all the other student’s homework. When Mike and I asked Gabe about it, he said they were stupid and weren’t getting it done and if he finished it for them, the class could move onto something different. Gabe became very upset by students that chose not to listen to their teacher. He would cry in frustration at his peers when they refused to do what the teachers asked. Gabe also hated substitutes because they got the class off track from their regular routine. I swear the Kindergarten teacher didn’t take off many days that year because she feared the problems Gabe would have from her being gone. If she stepped off her routine, Gabe would interrupt the class and inform her that she was off schedule. The teacher tried to explain flexibility to Gabe, but to no avail for the next many months.
Gabe was extremely time-centered at this point in his life and was bound and determined to keep everyone, including his teachers on a very precise time schedule. Mike and I realized quickly that when Gabe asked how long it would take to get somewhere, we were careful not to give him an exact time because if we didn’t arrive on time or got there too early, he would have a fit.
When Gabe stayed with my mother for a couple of days, he asked her when they could go to the park and my mom answered, “In about 15 minutes, Gabe.” My mom got busy doing something else and strangely the timer on her stove went off a little while later. She got up and turned off the stove trying to remember why she had set it. Gabe then busted into the kitchen and announced, “Time to go to the park, Grandma!” Somehow, Gabe at 6 years old had climbed onto her counter, set the timer on her stove, and was bound and determined for her to keep her word.
Gabe was the child who would come to check my alarm to find out how many minutes I still had to sleep before my alarm would go off and then tell me this when I was out cold, “Mom! Your alarm says you have 94 minutes of sleep left.” The first time it happened it was quite strange. I heard this little voice in my ear and then recognized what he was saying. “Oh, my God! Gabe! You don’t have to wake me up every couple minutes telling me how much time I have to sleep!” The next couple of mornings I had a strange feeling that someone was standing next to the bed and staring at me. I awoke to find Gabe standing right next to me, staring right into my eyes. “I waited till you opened your eyes. 61 minutes to sleep till your alarm goes off,” Gabe stated.
“You gotta be kidding me!” I thought to myself. The minutes thing about drove me nuts! Gabe watched every pattern that we had and then started fulfilling those patterns before we could do them ourselves. When I got home from teaching school, Gabe would instruct me to sit in my chair and when I did so, he would run and get a blanket and throw it on me. He would then run and get me a Diet Dew from the fridge and hand it to me, without me even asking for one. Every 30 minutes, Gabe would run and get me a Diet Dew and I would tell him I didn’t need one every 30 minutes, but that didn’t stop Gabe. I started just hiding them behind the chair every time he brought me one because it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to explain it to him.
At times, Gabe was absolutely exhausting because he had to stay busy every single second of every minute of every hour of every day. It was hard to stay ahead of him. He loved technology and figured out how to illegally download games without paying for them. I think he was 7 years old when I finally found out what he was doing. Thank goodness we never got in trouble for that because I thought for sure the police would show up thinking that Mike did it. Would they believe that a 7 year old could do that?
In other ways, Gabe was the easiest child to raise. Gabe informed us at 3 years old that he was finished with diapers and he took them off and put on underwear. Both Mike and I freaked out thinking he would have an accident in bed or all over the house. Nope! Gabe only had one accident in the middle of the night after that point and he screamed and cried for 2 hours and then fell asleep. He never had an accident again.
There were many times that we had high school babysitters and Gabe would inform me the next morning what they hadn’t done and that we should just pay him to babysit from now on. He told me what they watched, what they did every hour, and how often they were on their phone and weren’t watching Kalan. I knew that Gabe was going to watch Kalan better than the babysitter, but I didn’t bother trying to explain to Gabe that the rest of society would frown upon a tiny little babysitter. Gabe has always had this way of viewing the world and although it makes perfect sense to me, it has never fit with society’s views of children his age. I always thought that Gabe would probably love to be in a classroom in China where there is strict obedience by all students. He would love the quiet as well as the advanced mathematics and science, but there’s a reason he was born here.
I recognize that this blog is getting long and I will need to separate this into two parts. I want to show you a picture of how Gabe looks today at 14 years old and our biggest concerns now. Currently, Gabe has texture issues when it comes to eating and at 14 years old he is now 6 foot. He tends to only eat rice, cheese, and ice cream and really doesn’t enjoy eating very much. His Autism had posed different challenges at various developmental points and although it has gotten a bit easier as he ages, it is still difficult for him to navigate the social world and all its complexities. Please read Rainman Jr. (part 2) when I get it finished to find out more about this Autism journey we are on.