Screams pierce the air. My son’s mouth turns down, face red, arms swinging. I worry, not for the first time, what my neighbors are thinking.The offense was a simple request for the three-year-old to take his jacket off before getting in the car seat, but the response proved to be very complicated. Two minutes into our battle, I wonder how much it really matters, but I have been trying to set consistent boundaries and fear that giving in will cause more problems later. His occupational therapist has told me that he likes wearing his coat because it feels like a buffer from all the overwhelming sensory input coming at him, but I’ve read articles saying it is not safe to put a child in their car seat when they are wearing a winter coat. After a decade or two, I wrestle him out of his puffy red coat and strap him in.
Is this normal? Have I disturbed some exquisitely sensitive mechanism in his brain, or is he just a three-year-old throwing a tantrum? The dozens of unanswerable questions that scroll through my mind daily start rolling before we have backed out of the driveway.
My fears about his development didn’t come into play until shortly before his second birthday. He talked early, using words by nine months and putting them together before he started walking. He could point out every object on a book’s page and piece together puzzles that stumped older kids. He listened to music attentively, face rapt; he pulled me away from the group of moms at the playground to point out flowers and bugs. I wondered privately if my quirky little boy with his magical sense of wonder was a genius.
However, as the months passed, worries crept into my mind. My son avoided other children at the playground, and eventually refused to get out of the stroller. He recited entire books and echoed my questions back to me rather than answering them. He spent playtime arranging his dinosaurs in a complex circle. He flapped his hands when he was excited and panicked when we entered a crowded room. I stopped planning play dates with a good friend because her daughter shouted my son’s name with glee when she saw him, reducing him to inconsolable tears.
I rationalized everything. I’m an introvert; maybe he is too. He’s highly sensitive. He’s going through a phase. When his new daycare teacher asked me to meet with her, I expected mostly praise. “We’re so impressed with his vocabulary,” or maybe, “He’s quiet, but transitioning.”
Instead, she asked, “Have you ever thought your son might be delayed?”
I was unable to respond with coherent sounds, so the daycare teacher went on. “He hardly ever talks, and when he does, he is just saying words back to us. He covers his ears when we have music time. He doesn’t play with the other kids, just watches them.”
By this point I was bawling. I’d walled up my fears in rationalization, telling myself I was just worrying the way new moms do. But here was someone who’d worked with his age group for decades telling me she thought something was wrong with my son.
I returned to work from my lunch break twenty minutes late and cried through the rest of my shift.. I spent hours on the “Worried about Autism” BabyCenter forum. My mind played and replayed scenarios—my baby playing tetherball by himself on the playground, struggling through school, never falling in love or having a relationship. Other times I rebelled at the idea of a real problem—he’s just sensitive, I told myself. He doesn’t like crowds.
We took him out of the daycare, certain at least of the fact that he wasn’t thriving there, and hired a babysitter with a little boy his age. For the next year I watched him closely, gathering evidence that he was okay—he said a sentence he couldn’t possibly have heard anywhere else, he got cookie dough on his hands without screaming, he played with another child. I made doctor’s appointments and then canceled them. But I could never shake the nagging fears planted in my mind by the daycare teacher, or stop noticing the little quirks that set him apart.
I was describing a frustrating tantrum to my therapist when she mentioned that he sounded like he had sensory issues. “It isn’t a DSM diagnosis,” she told me, “but an evaluation is free. If he qualifies, the school district offers free services.” She handed me a pamphlet, which I shoved into a drawer, finally working up the courage to call the school district a month later.
His evaluation showed mixed results—he met the majority of his milestones, but still struggled with speaking to anyone but family members and shut down in social settings. He started seeing an occupational therapist and a speech therapist, and he is showing small changes—he will whisper to his preschool teacher and play with other children. He is slowly letting others see the intelligent and enchanting person he really is.
I’m happy to see him more comfortable in preschool and able to make friends. Ultimately I’ve stopped worrying about “fixing” his problems, instead focusing on simply helping him have a happy life. My son has challenges to face, like any child, regardless of how a textbook does or does not classify him. He also has amazing advantages—his sensitivity, his memory, his attention to detail.
“He’s the same bright boy,” my best friend told me, when my fears were at their height. And it’s true. He’s the boy who spots a caterpillar in the grass from ten feet away and lets it crawl through his fingers for the next hour on the playground, holding him as he swings and goes down the slide. He’s the boy who watches his baby brother and alerts me when he toddles too close to the stairs or looks like he might explore an electrical outlet. He’s the boy who knows every dinosaur and can identify obscure species of shark. He’s the boy who won’t pick up a peanut butter sandwich because he is afraid of getting sticky fingers, but will stick his entire face in a chocolate cake. And he’s the boy who is teaching me that I don’t have to understand everything to be able to embrace it all.
He will continue to have inexplicable tantrums and get overwhelmed on the playground. It might take teachers and friends a little longer to see the gems in my son’s mind and heart, because he doesn’t share them freely or easily. But in spite of his challenges, perhaps because of them, he is still that magical little boy I’ve been falling in love with for the last four years. Sometimes daily struggles cloud our perspectives, but ultimately the difficulties are dispelled by the bright love between mother and child. I’m learning how a child can stretch and shape a mother’s heart, changing her irrevocably.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mama to two blue-eyed boys, a military wife, a nurse, a bibliophile, and a writer. This summer she is moving from Washington state to North Carolina. She blogs about books, motherhood, and her undying love for Trader Joe’s at When Life Gives You Lemmons. Her work has been featured in several publications including Mothers Always Write, Upwrite Magazine, Tribe Magazine, and Parent.co. You can find her on Twitter.