Cuddly Black-and-White Bears, or Blood Sucking Worms?

PANDAS. I have a gut feeling. It sounds like PANDAS,” said my friend Stacey.

“But he’s never been a PANDAS kid,” I replied. “Plus, it didn’t come on that fast. The doctor thinks it’s parasite-related, thinks he picked up something new in Costa Rica. He’s always been susceptible to parasites.”

“Doctors can get stuck on one idea and want to make you fit that box. All I’m saying is to make sure you also look into PANDAS.”

“I hear you,” I said. “Can you get me the info on which tests to run for PANDAS? I’ll see if I can get them done before our appointment.”

This discussion, which could only have taken place between biomed parents, was about what’s been going on with Martin. Poor Martin is not in a good place. The troubles (the exciting new troubles, atop the quotidian troubles) started in Costa Rica, maybe halfway through July. I began to notice that Martin wanted to go to the bathroom all the time. Sometimes he would go to the bathroom, brush his teeth to leave, then need the bathroom again before we could get out the door. He started spending a long time on sitting on the toilet, too. Near the end of July he developed a tic: He thrusts one index finger simultaneously into each nostril—briefly, with no rooting around or picking, thank heavens—and then immediately puts his fingers into his mouth. The whole action is over within a couple seconds, but it’s noticeable, and recurring, and out of Martin’s control. Next came the eye rubbing. Since our return to the States, Martin has been rubbing his eyes compulsively. He asks, “Why is this happening? Why can’t I stop rubbing my eyes?” As we made our way into September, he started night-waking, and having trouble getting to sleep.

None of the symptoms dissipated as the new ones arose. As of today, Martin is sleeping poorly, rubbing his eyes till they look red and sore, patterning his index fingers into his nose and mouth constantly, and using the restroom multiple times per hour, sometimes staying in there 10 minutes or more.

Wait—did I mention touching his private parts? Now he’s doing that, too. If we gently remind him to watch his hands, he complains that it is hard.

I’ve already received several reports from school. Martin seems distracted (even more than usual, I assume). Martin walked into a wall. (Yes. That was one report.) Martin is signing out of the classroom to go to the bathroom several times an hour.

When the bathroom issues and first tic arose, in Costa Rica, I thought that oxalate sensitivity might be at play. I reduced oxalates in his diet, which was not easy, as he loves potatoes and sweet potatoes, and making a meal for the whole family (I’m vegan) usually means using some nuts, or legumes. A few weeks of reduced oxalates brought no change, unless you count a worsening of the symptoms.

Back in the States, I brought Martin to his pediatrician, to rule out a UTI. His urine showed no trace of problems. The pediatrician thought Martin might be constipated, which can cause frequent urination, so I worked prunes and pears into his daily diet. No change.

Martin is prone to parasites, so I gave him a course of Alinia, which has worked in the past. No change.

I called Martin’s primary doctor for autism issues. She suspected parasites also. Together, we decided to move Martin’s previously scheduled appointment from the end of October to this coming Monday.

Then I went out to dinner with Stacey, and we had the conversation with which I began this post. I agreed to get testing done for PANDAS, but to be honest, I was skeptical. Martin has never been a PANS or PANDAS kid. I can’t recall flares, or his behavior changing those few times when he’s been on antibiotics. Later Stacey texted me a link to basic information on PANDAS and wrote: “Seriously please read this because it does state urinary frequency as a sign of PANS and/or PANDAS. I would really look into this as a potential cause. I could be totally off base but I have just a gut feeling.” I opened the link, and one specific reported symptom of PANDAS struck me: poor handwriting.

Though I hadn’t thought much about it, or connected it to the urination and tics (probably because I’m bone-headed), I’ve noticed that Martin’s handwriting has been abysmal since he returned to school. Not just shaky or unplanned, as his handwriting usually is, but truly abysmal. Almost illegible.

PANDAS? Stacey’s gut feelings tend to be reliable.

Parasites? Martin’s doctor for autism issues knows him pretty well.

His mother’s opinion? Confused.

Why Can’t We Cross the Finish Line, the Nonexistent Finish Line, Together?

Bobby [a pseudonym] is eight years old and, according to Martin, his best friend. Bobby and Martin met in special-needs preschool four years ago, when Bobby was four years old and Martin was three. That’s also when I met Bobby’s mom, my friend Stacey [a pseudonym]. Bobby also has autism, and Stacey started biomed with him the following year, when Bobby was five.

When we all met, Bobby and Martin were superficially alike, with corresponding language limitations, emotional dysregulation, and lack of joint attention. They both had been classified “mild-to-moderate” on the autism spectrum. Beneath the surface, however, Martin and Bobby have entirely different health issues. Martin, simplified, has gut dysbiosis, mitochondrial processing issues, recurrent candida overgrowth, and suspected viruses hiding in biofilm. His immune system used to exist in overdrive, so that he was “never sick.” Bobby, simplified, has persistent mycoplasma pneumonia, environmental allergies, parasites, and PANS. His immune system is so depressed that he is “always sick.”

Stacey is given to panic. That is, she remains more susceptible than I am to the rollercoaster ride that is autism recovery. It is therefore possible that I did not completely, wholly, 100% believe her when, during the past few months, she’s said that Bobby isn’t doing as well as Martin, and that she’s not even sure they are still making progress in resolving his health issues.

Two weeks ago, Martin and I had a rare opportunity to hang out with just Stacey and Bobby. After a few hours together, and with regrets, I had to agree with Stacey that Bobby is not doing as well as Martin. At the restaurant, Bobby impulsively put his hands in others’ food and bolted from the table. When we walked in town, he disappeared into store after store and cried about having to go to school the next day. On the playground, he couldn’t swing by himself, aggressively hugged strangers, and melted down when it was time to leave. Martin, meanwhile, was perseverating a lot but otherwise looking pretty typical.

Know that I discussed all this with Stacey, and she gave me permission to write this post. I would not blindside a friend on-line, pseudonyms or no.

The afternoon’s low point, for me, came when Bobby was sitting on the sidewalk biting his own arm and I asked myself, “Is Bobby still the right best friend for Martin? Should Martin spend time with friends who challenge him more?” I would never want a mother to question whether Martin is the right friend for her child. I want Martin to be accepted by all kids, typically developing or otherwise. I was shortsighted and cruel to consider, even for a moment, directing Martin toward a higher-functioning friend. I recognized immediately that I was wrong and tried to turn the situation positive by asking Martin, “Your friend is having a difficult time. How can you help?” Still, there was no denying what I’d felt.

There are plenty reasons why, even though Stacey works just as hard as I do, Bobby’s recovery might be lagging behind Martin’s. I had the advantage of starting biomed when Martin was just two-and-a-half; by the time he met Bobby six months later, they were developmentally akin, even though Bobby is a full year older. Stacey didn’t get to start biomed until Bobby was five years old. The boys’ underlying issues are so different. Not all kids respond well to biomed, and Bobby may be one who doesn’t.

Three years ago, I wrote on this blog:

When I hear about other ASD kids making more progress, or faster progress, than Martin, it gives me hope. It also makes me angry and resentful. Why not our turn? Why not yet? What more do I have to do?

I ask myself, Is that still true? Do I still feel angry and resentful when other kids make more progress?

No. I don’t think so. Consider my friend Lakshmi and her son, Partha. I’ve written about Lakshmi before. Partha suffered a regression (lost all language) following a vaccination. We first met a few years ago when Lakshmi contacted me through this blog, and Partha was developmentally at about Martin’s level. Partha is recovered now, except for minor quirks; his mainstream classmates don’t know he had autism. That is much further along than Martin. When I see Partha and the progress he’s made, I feel happy for Lakshmi and inspired by what she’s accomplished. No resentment. No anger. Only the desire to continue sharing ideas over a cup of coffee. The same goes for my feelings about the other three recovered boys I know, as well as the kids I “know” through on-line chatter but have not met.

I’ve reached my current sanguinity, likely, because Martin has made clear, significant, and undeniable progress toward neurotypicality. In the same post as the “angry and resentful” admission, I mentioned that I became frustrated with Martin for spectrum behaviors like skipping, chewing on a straw in the corner of his mouth, and letting himself fall slack. In a later post, I wrote about Martin whining continuously oh mommy oh mommy oh mommy for 30 minutes, and screaming all the way from our apartment to JFK because Adrian suggested that he change jackets. We are nowhere near that place anymore. The spectrum behaviors that frustrate me today are more like talking too loud in church, laughing at the wrong time, and taking too long to finish breakfast. Almost every day, my confidence increases that we will achieve something like recovery.

I asked Stacey how she feels when she sees Martin or Bobby together, or when she sees Partha. (She knows Lakshmi and Partha too. We biomed moms all end up pals.) Stacey said that children who are recovering faster than Bobby make her depressed and anxious. She worries that she isn’t exploring the right treatments, and asks herself what more she can do (as I once asked myself, and sometimes still do). She fears that a mythical window will slide closed, separating Bobby forever from recovery.

And how does she feel when she sees a child who’s made no progress, who hasn’t taken any steps toward recovery, whose behaviors are more pronounced than Bobby’s, who lacks all language? She said, “I try not to assume the emotional burdens of others’ journeys. I want the best for them. I focus on Bobby.”

I admire Stacey for being hopeful for other kids while not letting their condition tint her outlook. I still tie myself to others’ children. Bobby’s performance at our play date has upset me terribly. I can’t feel as good about Martin’s recovery when I know not everyone is doing as well.

Kind of a funny shot of Martin, acting pretty typical while enjoying calamari in a restaurant.

Kind of a funny shot of Martin, acting pretty typical while enjoying calamari in a restaurant.

Once upon a time, it was more difficult for me to witness biomed kids passing Martin. Today, I think, it has become more difficult to see the ones who lag.