I stood in the dressing room of Gap Kids with Matthew and Andy, clothes heaped all around us, trying to find just the right outfit for Matthew’s first day of kindergarten. Matthew squirmed and laughed as I wrestled shirts and shorts over his busy body. When he dove under the door of the fitting room dressed only in his Batman underpants, I grabbed him by the leg and pulled him back in before he made a scene. But the shopping trip was over.
“I think the red shirt looks neat,” said Andy. “Can we go now?”
Andy had been an amiable two-year-old when family preoccupations switched abruptly from Halloween costumes to what to do about Matthew. He took walks with me while his big brother was in speech therapy and broke the silence of a droning car ride to the child psychologist with “Well, it’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?”
His favorite outfit was a pair of khaki corduroy pants, a turtleneck with bears around the collar and down the sleeves, and a pair of shoes with cars on them—a miniature man who spoke in full sentences.
“How old is he?” astonished passersby would ask when they overheard him conversing with me on our walks.
Now, at three, he was already a skilled mediator.
Any woman in her right mind would not go shopping with two boys, aged three and five, but I was a woman on the edge, having learned just days before that what I’d feared and suspected was true. Matthew was autistic. The official diagnosis of autism came from another specialist who was a colleague of Dr. Hoffman’s.
“Back-to-school shopping, eh?” asked the saleslady, handing me my bag. “Where do your kids go?”
I felt my face flush. “The little one goes to preschool at Merriewood, and Matthew goes to Burton Valley. He’ll be in kindergarten.”
“You’re kidding! My daughter starts there too! She got Mrs. Miller. How about your son?”
“He’s in the special class with Miss Adams.”
“The special class?” said the saleslady competitively. “I thought the gifted class didn’t start till the second grade.”
“The special class for kids with learning disabilities,” I clarified.
“Ohhh,” she said, coolly examining Matthew, who was now licking the mirror next to the register. “Bless his heart. Bless your heart, for that matter!”
While we had suspected for some time that it was autism, the news still leveled us and made us question whether we were doing the right things. Was I wasting my time driving back and forth to psychologists and speech therapists, time that could be spent doing something more effective? And what was the right thing?
There had been a lot of talk about the Lovaas early intervention program for children with autism. It was a behavior modification program designed to enhance the development of communication skills and represented a huge commitment involving forty hours a week of intensive one-on-one therapy with trained tutors. I had heard reports, however, that it had helped some children totally recover from autism. Should I seriously consider this?
“Matthew is too old for the program,” said the new specialist, “and too high-functioning. The program is most successful with children up to three and a half years, before stereotypical and disruptive behaviors become established. And,” she added, “there is no cure for autism.”
I believed that the psychologist was making progress with Matthew, but Peter wasn’t so sure.
“A woman in my office has a friend whose cousin is autistic,” Peter told me, glancing at Dr. Hoffman’s latest bill, “and she said psychotherapy doesn’t work for autistic people.”
“Not all people with autism are alike, Peter, and we don’t know anything about the cousin’s case.” I started crying. I fell apart easily these days.
“Dr. Hoffman has been helping Matthew a lot,” I wept. “He is talking more and is communicating his feelings better.”
The most helpful aspect of Matthew’s visits with Dr. Hoffman was what I was learning about Matthew and his autistic brain. I was particularly curious about Matthew’s rituals and his insistence on sameness.
“Matthew’s internal world is very confusing,” Dr. Hoffman explained. “He depends on routine and rituals to restore order.”
“What about his random, impulsive behavior?” I asked the doctor. “Why does he bite kids in his class, apparently out of the blue? Why does he throw toys and rocks at other children—and then laugh?”
He explained that Matthew’s impulsive ways were his attempt to connect with people. When he bites someone or throws a toy at them, he gets a reaction, albeit a negative one. Dr. Hoffman would work on helping Matthew communicate appropriately, with language.
On Matthew’s first day of school, I dressed him in his new red shirt and blue shorts and white Velcro shoes. I combed his hair and took a picture of him for the scrapbook, hoping that someday I could say, “This picture was taken on your first day of kindergarten, just months before we cured you of autism!” His expression in the picture wasn’t happy or sad but passive, like a man waiting in line at the bank.
I arrived at Matthew’s classroom fifteen minutes early, hoping that I could watch his new classmates arrive with their mothers. I had been feeling so isolated and was anxious to connect with these women who, like me, had been through so much.
But Matthew and I walked into a full classroom, with no mothers in sight.
“Good morning, Matthew!” said Miss Adams, Matthew’s fresh-faced young teacher. “It’s nice to see you again. Come on over and we’ll introduce you to your classmates.”
There were six children in the class including Matthew—four boys and two girls. None of them, except for the blind boy, Adam, looked disabled as they sat at their desks.
“Are we late?” I asked.
“No, they’re early. On the first day, the bus drops the kids off early.”
My heart sank.
“They all came on the bus? Even on their first day of kindergarten?”
Miss Adams nodded. “Will Matthew be taking the bus?”
I had great memories of my mom driving me to and from kindergarten. I was always so excited to see her by the classroom door waiting to hear about my day.
“No, I like driving him,” I said. “I hoped I could meet some of the moms today. I thought since it was the first day—”
“All of the parents should be at Back to School Night next week,” said Miss Adams.
What a bunch of cold women!
I tried to hold back my tears, but I felt so undone—not just because the mothers didn’t show up, but by the whole scene.
“You must think I’m a nut!” I said, wiping my tears.
“Mommy cries a lot,” Andy confided to Miss Adams, “but she’s fine.”
“All moms cry on the first day of kindergarten,” said Miss Adams, smiling.
“Goodbye, Matthew!” I called from the doorway, but he was already busy with the water fountain. He had recently added a new twist to the water fountain routine. While one hand was under the stream of water, the other was flapping, and he stopped intermittently to jump and dip down to touch the floor, laughing and drooling. Dr. Hoffman told me this was called self-stimulating behavior, and Matthew used it to cope with an overstimulating environment.
“Is he having a fit?” a mother at the park had asked me over the summer.
“No,” I responded. “He’s just overwhelmed, and he’s working it out.”
Once in the car, I put on a smile for Andy.
“Do you want to go see Grandma?” I asked.
“OK,” he said, peering up at me. “You’re fine now, right, Mommy?”
“I’m better than fine,” I said, hugging my insightful, sympathetic three-year-old. “I’m great!”