Autism: Racing through the “window of opportunity”.


It took me over an hour during a cold December rainstorm to get to Brian Hoffman’s office near Stanford University. Matthew studied the windshield wipers during the drive, and Andy slept. When Dr. Hoffman greeted us in the waiting room that he shared with two other therapists, my eyes filled with tears, and the ordeal of getting there was immediately forgotten.

Dr. Hoffman’s redwood-paneled office was tidy but warm with a big leather couch and chairs. A bookcase contained a mix of professional books and manuals, child development tomes, and children’s stories. In the corner was a play table that converted into a sandbox.

We spent just a few minutes getting reacquainted, and then Dr. Hoffman took Matthew’s hand.

“Let’s do some drawing, Matthew,” he said. “Your mom and Andy are going for a walk. They’ll be right back.”

“Right back,” said Matthew, still echolalic despite months of speech therapy.

“We’ll see you in about an hour,” Dr. Hoffman said, closing the door behind him.



“What do you think?” I asked the doctor anxiously when I returned. “Do you think it’s serious? Do you think it’s autism? Or something else? And if it is autism, is there some way we can turn things around?”

Dr. Hoffman told me that Matthew did display many autistic traits, but that it would be premature to diagnose him just yet.

“He may have been traumatized by an event in the family, such as Andy’s birth, which caused him to withdraw,” he said while watching the two brothers play side by side.

“Could it be something I did? Or Peter? Maybe a babysitter that was mean to him?”

I started to cry.

“I am not saying that anyone did anything. It may just be that Matthew is a sensitive child, and that he has reacted to normal family events by withdrawing. If that is the case, play therapy could help draw him out.”

He proposed two sessions a week for Matthew, and monthly parent appointments to discuss Matthew’s progress.

Wow, that’s gotta be expensive! And an hour drive each way!


I drove home in turmoil. This would be a big commitment. But I knew that Dr. Hoffman wouldn’t suggest it unless he believed it would help. He’s the expert.

But they’re all experts. Who do I believe?

Maybe insurance will cover this. Maybe my parents will help. How would I do it?

Preschool Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That’s when I’ll work. Then when I pick him up from school, we’ll run to speech therapy. Tuesday and Thursday will be Dr. Hoffman’s days. I’ll keep Andy up until it’s time to go and he can nap in the car. Maybe I’ll have to quit my job. Can we afford it?

When I went over Dr. Hoffman’s theory with Peter, he grew pale.

“You’ve got to be kidding! Traumatized? Give me a break!”

“The way he explained it was, some children are more sensitive than others and react to regular things by withdrawing.” I struggled to explain what Dr. Hoffman had told me today, and finally gave up. I had to admit it sounded like psychobabble, but I needed to trust someone.

“Just call him and get it all from him,” I said, throwing up my hands. I was exhausted, utterly confused, and scared.

“I’ll call him,” Peter said, “but there is no way we’re going to do this. Can’t you find anyone closer?”

“Peter,” I said, crazed, “I just can’t go to another doctor, answer all the same questions in another freaky office, and put Matthew through it—again!”

My parents came over for dinner that evening, and the four of us churned over all of the advice we had heard since Matthew’s first evaluation less than six months before.

“All I want,” said Peter, “is for one person, one expert, to say ‘Here is what is wrong with Matthew, and here is exactly what you should do.’”

“It seems that you would be smart to try everything within reason,” said my dad, “and step back and see what’s working. And by the way, just raise your hand if you need help with this. We mean it. And I’m sure your parents would do the same.”

I looked at my mom, who was looking out the window at Matthew while he played with the garden hose. She seemed so sad.

“I wonder what he’s thinking about,” she said. “I wonder if he knows we’re worried about him.”

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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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