My son started pre-K this month in NYC and his teachers aren’t pulling any punches. Starting from orientation night, they prepped us to hone our kids’ interview skills and showed us the ten page assessment they would be giving them in the next two weeks. Most of the parents around me grumbled when they saw the math and reading sheets, but I was too busy swallowing the vomit in my mouth from the words “interview skills” in the same sentence as four year olds. Especially for my son.
When I sat down for the evaluation results with his teacher I thought I knew what to expect. He’s socially awkward, emotionally regressive, but exceptionally bright. What I didn’t expect was the subtle suggestion that he might be “on the spectrum.”
I admit for the first time I gave pause, considering that my son displays a laundry list of of behaviors that are considered symptoms of autism:
Doesn’t look when you call their name, even if they seem to hear other sounds
Doesn’t look you in the eye much or at all (at school)
Doesn’t notice when you enter or leave a room
Seems to be in their own world
Can’t do simple things you ask them to do
Has a lot of tantrums
Prefers to play alone (at school)
But my gut immediately told me it wasn’t true. And today, an excerpt from the book “Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior Is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder” gives me a new rationale. He’s just a strong-willed, intellectual, introverted, hyper left-brain child.
In its milder form, especially among preschool- and kindergarten-age boys, it is tough to distinguish between early signs of autism spectrum disorder and indications that we have on our hands a young boy who is a budding intellectual, is more interested in studying objects than hanging out with friends, overvalues logic, is socially awkward unless interacting with others who share identical interests or is in a leadership role, learns best when obsessed with a topic, and is overly businesslike and serious in how he socializes.
The school environment only makes it far worse for my son. When he’s anxious he reverts to “baby talk” (if he speaks at all), he refuses to look his teachers in the eye, and he won’t engage with unfamiliar peers. He also does math at a first grade level, can read entire childrens’ books and identify words from a grade six vocabulary book. Don’t even get me started on how picky he is as an eater. All of this paints a picture — understandably — for his teachers to ask if he’s ever seen a professional.
But the child I know at home talks up a storm, engages with his younger sister constantly and yanks my head (usually up from my computer) right to his face to look me in the eye and tells me he loves me on a daily basis. To consider him autistic would not only minimize his natural temperament and strengths, but the diagnosis and treatment that benefit spectrum children.