Martin and I are in Texas, visiting my parents. Previous visits here brought Martin unmitigated happiness, as he basked in Grandma and Grandpa’s attention and enjoyed school-free all-day playtime. This trip has been different. Almost as soon as we arrived he became moody and crabby—and asked to go home.
After a few days I realized that Martin has matured, socially. He misses his little friends and interacting with other kids.
I decided to take him to a toddler playgroup sponsored by the church I attend when in Texas.
I didn’t know any of the families attending, so I faced the usual question: What explanation do I give?
The playgroup presented more challenge than usual. We were there specifically to spend time with other toddlers, all of whom were neurotypical (at least as far as I could tell). We were strangers asking to be welcomed. And the differences were bound to show.
What to do, what to do?
Martin, who is about to turn four, was the oldest child there. The next-oldest was a boy almost three, the son of the playgroup’s coordinator. After some brief introductions, I approached that boy’s mother and said:
“Thanks so much for having us. My son has some speech and language delays, so socially, I guess, he is probably right about where your son is.”
That was it.
No hiding, no blaming Martin’s quirks on tiredness, or on speaking Spanish better than English, or on being shy. And no reference to the A-word. I said he has “some speech and language delays” and left it at that.
We spent 90 minutes at the playgroup, and Martin did nothing to indicate that his issues went beyond “some speech and language delays.” He was recalcitrant, to be sure, but neither oblivious to the other kids nor obviously ASD symptomatic. He made eye contact, tried a variety of activities, and spoke to the adults. No tantrums erupted. When I had to leave to visit the restroom, I asked Martin whether he needed to join me. He considered, then responded, “No. I want to stay here.”
Martin’s conduct at the playgroup, along with my choice of introductions, got me pondering a conversation I had weeks ago with his Track Two doctor. The topic was whether the A-word still applies to Martin. Autism, as I understand the condition, is defined by symptoms, not by causes. If a person displays enough of the symptoms, to enough of an extent, then s/he is classified as on the spectrum.
If Martin no longer displays many symptoms, and the ones still present (like repeating words and questions) are infrequent, does he still have autism? Was my statement—“some speech and language delays”—accurate, even if we are still battling the underlying causes of autism?
I don’t know the answer, of course.
But I’m over the moon just to be asking the question.