Autism, parenting & beyond: 12 FAQ’s answered


Dreamy Matthew, age one

Did you know that parents of children with autism like it when you ask them questions about their experience? At least I do. Sometimes we get tongue tied when answering because autism is complicated, and because we are emotional. Here is a list of the 11 most frequent questions that I am asked, along with answers:

1) What is autism, and how severe is Matthew’s case?

Autism is a neurological disorder; not a disease. It is a broad spectrum disorder, meaning it’s possible to be bright, verbal, and autistic, bright non-verbal and autistic as well as intellectually disabled, verbal and autistic…you get the picture. While all individuals with autism are COMPLETELY different from one another, most share deficits to some degree in three areas:

  • social interaction
  • verbal and nonverbal communication
  • repetitive behaviors or interests.

In addition, many have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. “They” are not all alike. Individuals with autism have unique challenges, quirks, and interests. So it is hard for me to describe where Matthew falls on the autism spectrum. He is honest, friendly, hard working and very funny. He’s frustrated by his inability to figure things out sometimes, and that makes him angry. But he’s learning to keep how to ask for help, and I admire him for that.

2)      How old was Matthew when he was diagnosed?

Matthew was 2 years old when we noticed that he wasn’t talking as much as most toddlers his age. We also worried about his intense interest in lights, gates and drains. Developmental specialists told us he was not autistic, but developmentally delayed. We thought that meant he could catch up. Matthew was not formally diagnosed until he was 5, and by then, we had figured it out. That was many years ago. Developmental specialists are able to detect autism much earlier these days.

3) How did you handle the diagnosis?

I was sad and scared, but determined to “turn things around”. We tried every kind of therapy, even those that seemed whacky. I wish I’d known someone like the future me to  to turn to for reassurance and support. Parents now have tremendous resources-one of my favorites is THE THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM.

4)      What do you think causes autism?

I’m on the side of science, and at present, most researchers think autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors – and it’s quite possible that different people’s symptoms have different causes.

5)     Is there a cure for autism?

Autism is a lifelong diagnosis, but it is treatable.

6)      How has having a brother with autism affected Matthew’s brothers                                  Andy and John?

It was especially hard for Andy, who was just two years younger than Matthew, for many years. The  two played a lot when they were babies, and then Matthew withdrew. Andy was also teased about Matthew’s peculiar behavior. John, who is 7 years younger than Matthew,   was never at the same school as Matthew, but home life was chaotic to be sure. Andy is now 24, and John is 19. They are great with Matthew, and are more tolerant than most of the differences in others.

7)      I hear that 80% of couples with a child with autism get divorced. How do you stay married?

I’m not sure anyone really knows the real statistics, but HERE is how I stay married.

8)      How do you handle the stress?

It is a challenge. Best thing I ever did you manage the stress was to talk to a therapist.Finding helpers is also crucial. It’s very important for everyone in your family that you take care of yourself.

9)      How in the world did you learn to be so patient?

I believe that everyone has more patience and they find it when they are tested!

10)      Do you worry about what will happen to Matthew when you die?

Yes, but I have made plans,(more about that later) and you can too. Start by reading the Autism Speaks Transition Tookit.

11)      One piece of advice for parents of a newly diagnosed child?

Reach out to parents who have been in your shoes. They can help you. My hand is raised!

12)        What is one thing you wish you knew during the challenging times that you know now?

I need to mention three things:

a)  Try to remember how hard it is for your child to adapt to the “regular” world.

b) It get’s better. I enjoy Matthew so much.

c) When you come across people who stare, or snicker, or worse, realize that they just don’t understand what you are dealing with. I’ve learned that it is better to show them how you relate to your child rather than tell them off. One of my most unforgettable moments was at the Oakland Airport Baggage claim after a long and meltdown rich flight with Matthew, who was a teenager at the time. A man that I thought had been staring at us disapprovingly all day tapped me on the shoulder and said ” I’ve been watching you in action today, and you have taught me a lot. Thank you.”


Matthew as a young man.


COMING SOON: FAQ about autism and employment.

Read the first three chapters of A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM here.

You’ll be hooked. (It makes a great holiday gift-really!)


About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


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