My son went missing when he was two years old. His body didn’t go anywhere, but the rest of him did. He disappeared into the mysterious, heart wrenching world of regressive autism. Up until he was 18 months old, our son, Nate, had developed as a typical, happy, bouncing baby boy. He began walking and talking, laughing and engaging with others using his mostly toothless smile and his bright, shining eyes.
But at 18 months, his eyes began to lose their light. He stopped talking. He stopped smiling. He stopped responding to his name. Then, he stopped responding to anyone else in the world around him as he spun off into his own orbit.
Because I had trauma from my own childhood, the trauma of seemingly losing a child to regressive autism sent me into a Post Traumatic Stress tailspin. I knew we had to do something to help. But what?
By the grace of God, a friend of ours had a son with autism, too, and was being helped by Erik Lovaas, an expert in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Although that is the preferred treatment now, it was still controversial back in 2002. It was expensive, and we couldn’t get any funding. So, against the instincts of a mother who feels the need to spend as much time with a two year old as possible, we agreed to have our son have treatment for 40 hours a week.
He would scream and cry for hours during the monthly consultations as his tutoring sessions were adjusted. Then he’d scream and cry during much of the daily tutoring. Then he’d just scream and cry. His torture became mine.
He remained non-verbal yet multi-vocal for more than a year after that. During that time, the only thing he responded to positively was VeggieTales, the cartoon vegetables who teach Bible stories and principles through skits and music. Nate loved them and would spin in circles and dance excitedly on his toes whenever we put in one of the videos. He was obsessed with them, in fact. One day I walked out into the living room to find that he’d written out “VeggieTales” in Lincoln Logs. The next day, he spelled it out in pencils. The day after that, rocks. And so began his first form of communication since his initial disappearance.
One of the VeggieTales characters sings a cheeseburger song and dances about with a cheeseburger on his head. One day after getting Nate a kid’s meal, he took out the cheeseburger and put it on his head and wouldn’t take it off. No amount of coaxing would convince him otherwise. When I took it from him, he screamed until he finally found it in the trash, put it back together (if that’s what you can call it), and put it back on his head.
If you have never been around a child with autism, you may not know just how relentless, stubborn and impossible it can be to coax them into “desirable behaviors.”