Unfortunately, in the real world, labels are a necessary roadblock for people with disabilities to be able to access services that they need. It's an unpleasant fact, but a fact nonetheless.
I have three precious children. All three were in the foster care system and were my foster children before I adopted them. I had the privilege of having so many beautiful children in my home over the four years I was a foster parent, but my son Troy truly stands out as a miracle child among them.
To give you a very brief summary of his background: Troy was removed from his birth parents' home at 9 months of age. He had been neglected and exposed to drugs. He was put into a shelter for children and remained there for a month before being placed in my home at ten months. When he arrived, he did not know how to crawl, play with toys, make eye contact, interact with people, etc. His muscles were very stiff. He required physical, occupational, and speech therapies. With some basic love and attention, though, he thrived! He is a walking miracle.
He is sweet, friendly, obedient, and sensitive. He's crazy about outer space, dinosaurs, and trains. Science is his favorite subject in school, and last year, in first grade, he won the class scientist award. He is a very advanced reader, testing far above average and well into the next grade level. He's an amazing child!
For his many talents and abilities, he has just as many struggles and limitations. He definitely has ADD and a mood disorder and is medicated for both. But there was more. When I was studying autism at the University of North Texas, I would look at the checklists of "symptoms," and I kept thinking about Troy. He met almost every single characteristic. I brushed it off though. He was functioning in a normal classroom. He was clearly not at the same level as his brother Koby in terms of the disorder, so I didn't pursue it.
However, as time continued to pass, new issues continued to arise. He struggles with anxiety, and it seemed to be getting worse. Socially, he was still not making friends. We tried increasing his meds. We asked the play therapist to work with him on anxiety and self-esteem. (I was concerned his self-esteem might be causing problems with his social skills.)
The autism possibility kept gnawing at me. I did some more reading, and I could no longer deny that he truly met the criteria. I called for an ARD (Admission Review Dismissal) meeting and officially requested a full autism assessment to be done. I presented my observations, the others at the meeting gave their input, and we all agreed that there was sufficient evidence to warrant the assessment.
Weeks passed. Then, Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from a district school psychologist. She asked me some questions about Troy, and she told me about her interactions with him and input she had received from his teacher. She had reviewed his file and previous assessments and mentioned some themes and patterns in them. Finally, at the end of the discussion, she told me that at the upcoming ARD meeting, she would diagnose him as having an autism spectrum disorder. She said that she was recommending counseling to help with his anxiety and social skills. I thanked her, and we hung up.
I am now officially the mother of two boys with autism. And I am not at all sad about it.
First, both of my boys are amazing human beings. I am so proud to call them my sons. This label does not change that. Second, having the label of autism blesses them both with the opportunity to have access to services that they need. That big, scary label is actually a key that will unlock doors to help each reach his potential.
When I told my family members, nobody was surprised to hear the news. They all know Troy well. One person, however, said that hearing the news made her heart fall. I was disappointed by that response and did not understand it. I reminded her that it should not have been a surprise. She agreed. But that response really got me thinking.
The main point I'm trying to reach in this rambling blog post is that some people truly are heartbroken when they hear that someone they love has been diagnosed as having autism. Please, please understand this: You should not view an autism diagnosis as a tragedy!
I did not receive a phone call on Friday with news that Troy has an inoperable, terminal brain tumor. I received the opposite news! With this label, he has an even better opportunity at a successful, happy life! I cannot do anything to go back and change Troy's brain into a typically functioning brain. He has autism. I cannot do anything to go back and change Koby's brain into a typically functioning brain. He has autism. What I can do is use the label placed upon them to advocate for them and make sure they receive the best services available to them.
After I received the phone call, I posted the news on Facebook. I did not post it as a sad update--because, again, I am NOT sad. I immediately lost a "like" on my author page! I was shocked! All weekend long, I have wondered who I offended and why. I have no idea, and I'm sure I never will. But it did inspire me to write this lengthy blog post to explain why I do not view this label in a negative light, and I sincerely hope you do not either.