One day my friend visited with her gorgeous 14 month old baby girl. I smiled and greeted her and there it was- the most wonderful natural baby smile responding to me. What magic it is and a moment that is so precious. Amazing that it was, it actually made feel sad. Why? Well because neither of my children at that age ever displayed that type of magical response smile.
My first son did indeed have a social smile as a baby but somewhere in his development it disappeared and by 14 months his response to a stranger’s smile was a deep and worrying frown. This lack of smile did not mean he wasn’t loving, I think he just didn’t understand what the stranger’s smile was. It is said that children with autism often see faces in a different way to neurotypical children. When I used to ask my son to describe his friends he would say ‘oh he is a triangle’ or ‘the lady is a square’. I always wondered if he was looking at the shape of their head or face rather than their smile. Children with autism are loving and affectionate, they just express it differently.
My second son is two and a half years old and was excited to play with the gorgeous 14 month old baby girl who was visiting him. He smiled back at her and was intrigued when she threw a ball to him. My son had speech delay and had been having early intervention speech therapy. When I saw him interact and play ‘catch’ with the gorgeous 14 month old visitor I was so proud. I felt like calling all my friends to come see ‘look, look’! At that point my second son was also being assessed for an autistic spectrum disorder.
When neurotypical children play, their parents smile, record it and feel proud. For a family affected by autism, every smile, every appropriate social response learned or natural is gold. The smile or response gives a sense of achievement or security and helps push aside the fear of autism, at least for a moment.
A diagnosis of autism can be devastating to families. Told their child has a developmental disorder that will mean they will have problems with social interaction and communication, behavioural, and self-help skills (as well as other possible challenges), they face the unknown. The symptoms of autism are many and not every child exhibits all or every symptom. Every child is different and unique making the disorder complex to treat as there is not one blanket solution. Diagnosis offers confirmation but does not always provide an answer or treatment. The diagnosis is often feared as ‘labeling’ the child. However, it is easier to fight what you know what it is they need to work to overcome. As the child grows, the diagnosis helps them to understand themselves. Although there is no cure there are proven interventions for autism, the earlier treatment is started the better it is for the outcome. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, social skills training, cognitive behavioural therapy, and dietary interventions are all possible treatments for children diagnosed with autism.
Many families around the world talk about recovery from autism and there are many children like my son that after years of interventions appear completely neurotypical and the symptoms of autism have all but disappeared. The cause of autism is not fully understood although genetics are thought to have a role, and some believe that toxins from the environment play a role. Others believe that digestive problems and/or nutritional deficiencies can be a trigger or might aggravate the disease.
Families are usually devastated by a diagnosis of autism but that doesn’t last long once they start a journey to help their children overcome it. The children and their parents spend hours learning new skills, exercising, and doing therapy. Many of them adapt their lifestyles, routines, dietary habits and lifestyle on a mission to overcome the disease. The children work so hard to overcome everything. My sons spent hours practicing speech sounds, playing social skills games, doing occupational therapy exercises, and following a carefully managed dietary regime. Every little improvement is so precious, every neurotypical response is proof that the interventions are working. When an autistic child returns a stranger’s smile it is a moment for celebration.