The following story was shared with ABA. Names have been changed for privacy.
My name is Raj, and I’m married to a wonderful woman named Ravi. We have three children: Alex, who’s nine; Tarek, who’s eight; and David, who is six. David was diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) last year.
Ravi and I grew up in pretty similar households. Education and academic achievement, I guess you could say, were really important to our parents, and we were influenced by that. So even before our kids were anywhere close to attending even preschool, we were pretty adamant that they begin learning. We had flashcards. We tried to forego using small words, choosing to say things like, “Hey, Tarek, look – an excavator!” instead of something simple, like “Hey, buddy, look at that car!”
Alex and Tarek were pretty impressive to our families, I’d have to say. They were verbal, they were interested, they were engaged, pretty much from the get-go. Alex is at the top of his class, and Tarek is a natural athlete who loves to read. When we had David, we didn’t imagine anything different.
David was nonverbal. We started noticing at about two years old something wasn’t quite right, but we should have seen it earlier. He wouldn’t make eye contact. He wouldn’t respond to the sound of his own name. He didn’t even make any sounds that were particularly distinctive. It didn’t break my heart that he wasn’t “like” the other two. I was devastated I didn’t know how to communicate with my son.
I would lay in my bed at night and Ravi and I would cry over how hard his life was going to be. I was convinced it was autism, but Ravi wouldn’t have it.
I think she knew it, though. It felt hard right away – there was no time to really wrap our heads around this, because it all just came at us like a freight train. The speech therapist and our doctor told us he had a cognitive speech disability, and this inability to talk made him seek other ways to communicate with us, which meant he’d be banging his head on the wall or throwing things. I thought to myself, “This is not just a speech thing. This is bigger than that.”
It really affected our marriage. Our whole family. I started withdrawing from David… I threw myself into the other two boys, taking them to soccer practice and then volunteering to coach and finding all kinds of reasons to keep them busy so I wouldn’t have to be with David. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, to be honest. But Ravi felt it, and she called me out on it in tears one night. I begged her to hear me. She said she did hear me, she heard me a long time ago, but she just didn’t want to.
When he was four, we got the diagnosis. Autism spectrum disorder. It was a relief and a really scary thing all at once. To hear it be officially handed to us was like, “Okay. This is real. Now what?”
Honestly, we’ve had such support from everywhere that it hasn’t been any kind of “sentence,” you know? He’s just the most special, lovely, delightful little guy, and even if he doesn’t fit into this picture that my wife and I had painted of our “perfect” family… he really does perfect us.
About three months ago, I was sitting in his room, and we were organizing his colored markers. He’s got a knack for color, and we’re really encouraging his love of artistry and painting and drawing, all of the artistic things that seem to light him up. And out of the blue, while he was lining up his markers, he just (went), “Love you, Daddy.”
My heart, my stomach, everything flipped. It’s no more or less special than hearing the other two say it, but it was one of those markers that a person just never forgets. In that moment, all the years, all the pain, all the difficulty and all the fear that he’s going to live a very challenged life… it all disappeared. I love my son, and he’s never said it again, but I’ve heard it. The fact he said it makes me sure he knows I love him too, more than anything in the world.