I was seventeen years old and nearing my high school graduation when two pink lines whispered my fate on a cheap plastic stick.
At that moment I went from reading social studies books to pregnancy and newborn books. Instead of going to after school sports, I took birthing classes. I knew that if I didn’t go to college right away I might never go so I looked into scholarships, grants, and online college courses. It was shortly after that I broke up with my, then, boyfriend in order to provide a healthy environment for my soon-to-be baby. I worked nights and my mom would come and stay with Oliver while I worked. I was lucky to have help from my mom. During the day I studied during his naps and after he went to sleep.
One of my final courses, when obtaining my two-year college degree, was Developmental Psychology. In that course, we learned about Autism Spectrum Disorder and the signs that might point to such a diagnosis.
As I heard the symptoms rattled off, I began to check boxes in my head: speech regression, developmentally age-appropriate behaviors, seriousness, showing only a small range of facial expressions, hand flapping, toe walking, spinning in circles, crossing and uncrossing his fingers, lining up his toys, staring at the washing machine, crying at loud noises, and acting as if other children were invisible, among a myriad of other small indicators. My 18-month-old son Oliver did all of those things.
The realization that my child was likely on the autism spectrum left me numb.
Reading and rereading those symptoms, those warning signs, caught in my throat. My heartbeat sped, within my chest, trying its best to keep me moving forward. Everything suddenly felt hopeless and there was nothing I could do but remember to breathe. Simply trying to breathe was an excruciating chore in the weeks that followed.
As a young mother my focus was on childcare, my schooling, and how I would pay for diapers and onesies.
What I wasn’t thinking about was how I would manage a life around my future son’s therapy schedule. I tried my best to keep my son moving forward, even though the life I envisioned for him was forever altered.
Living in a small town in the mountains in Washington, there weren’t any resources anywhere near us. I called one early intervention center after another but they all said that we were “not in their area.” With disappointment after disappointment, I made a leap of desperation and looked up the director of all thirty of the early intervention centers in King County. I explained our situation and my unwillingness to give up on advocating for my son. It was a lucky break and with her shared passion and aid, the closest center was required to amend their district rule in order to allow Oliver’s participation. This was a huge triumph for us.
Something shifted in me when I began to suspect Oliver was autistic. I firmly decided that if he did, indeed, have this developmental disorder, I was going to do anything and everything in my power to help him live the most comfortable and fulfilling life he possibly could. I wouldn’t let my age, my income, my zip code, or anything else stand in the way of getting his needs met.
When it came time for Oliver’s final diagnostic appointment at UW, the psychologist motioned me to sit down across from her, where she cautiously opened a white folder.
She laid her pale hands flat on the report before her eyes met my own. “I do believe that Oliver is on the autism spectrum,” she said.
I knew this. I already knew that he had autism and knew that this was simply a documented confirmation, so why did I feel the urge to cry? When those two pink lines on that cheap chunk of plastic shrunk my possibilities, I adapted. I knew that I would still be able to live the life I wanted to live and found comfort in thinking about all of the opportunities my future child would have. Why did it feel like her words shrunk his possibilities? It felt like a jab. A personal attack.
It felt like something profound had been stolen from my son and I was angry.
I walked out of the building and the world around me felt different than it did when I walked in. It was a wet Seattle summer day. The brightness of the overcast clouds was overwhelming. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath, looking down at the saturated cement. I tried to ground myself before crossing the busy street. I looked down at my nonverbal toddler in his stroller and he squinted at the intensity of the atmosphere. He didn’t have a clue as to what had just happened. Nothing had changed for him.
My mom had driven us to the appointment and had parked a few streets over. I buckled Oliver into his car seat and tossed the umbrella stroller in the trunk, wordlessly. I feared that telling her would send me into tears. She had been in denial and expected me to come out with “good” news. I wanted to be able to give that to her, but ever since I had read that chapter in my textbook, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to.
When you’re a young single mother, you’re not always heard. You’re not always taken seriously. I have been asked many times if I am indeed Oliver’s mother. “You’re so young,” they say.
I may be a teen mom and I might not have expected my child to have autism, but we adapted and are growing together. Oliver has made a huge impact on how I see the world and my biggest hope is that I can do the same for him. My compassion for others has become unceasing for all who are “different”. In terms of special needs, specifically, I am far more sympathetic of children having meltdowns in public and try to reach out to parents to let them know that they aren’t alone, as it often feels that way. Even when it feels arduous, I will continue to pave the way for my son, as he paves the way for me.
1 in 68 children in the United States have ASD and the number has drastically risen over the years. It is still unknown what exactly the cause behind the increase in autism diagnoses is, but what is known is that therapies such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis, and unconditional love can make for an enhanced overall quality of life. As more light is shed on autism and awareness increases, the less fear I feel for Oliver. With knowledge comes a decrease in discrimination. Oliver has made an immense amount of progress since receiving early intervention therapy and is now in his second year of preschool, in a program for children on the autism spectrum that allows him to continue receiving services while having the opportunity to be around neurotypical children. I have managed to continue working and going to school around Oliver’s therapy, despite the struggles and lack of sleep, and recently finished my bachelor’s degree.
Savannah Slone is a queer writer who recently earned her B.A. in English: Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University and is completing her M.F.A. in Writing at Lindenwood University. Her writing has appeared in or will soon appear in We Have Raised Presidents, Circle of Mamas, Manastash Literary Arts Magazine, Creative Colloquy, Heavy Feather Review, Boston Accent Lit, PaperFox Lit Mag, and The Stray Branch. Savannah lives in Skykomish, WA, where she works a handful of part-time jobs and cares for her toddler with autism. She enjoys reading, writing, knitting, and hiking.