“No, mija, you can’t catch autism, it’s too fast.”
Humor would save me in those moments, especially early on. Everyone has that person in their family that can’t stop pointing out what they think you are doing wrong.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have went back to work so soon, huh. When your brother was born, your mom did the same thing. Do you know your brother almost died?” she’d ask. It didn’t matter if I had an answer or not, there were no pauses. “If it hadn’t been for me mija, who knows what would have happened.” I nodded and kept folding the laundry that had been sitting on the couch for the last three days. She picked up a pair of boxers and waved it around. “This is probably why he got sick– why he was born sick. When the guys wear these kinds of underwear, the kids come out sick.” Sick. That’s the word people used in Spanish when they told people about Gustavo. “Enfermito.”
I am the oldest of five and both of my parents worked. When Gustavo was born, aside from the experience I had babysitting my brothers, I was the mother of three.
Gustavo would be the last baby born to me and my husband. It was a hard delivery despite being the shortest. He was born just three hours after the first labor pain. He made his arrival several weeks early but he was so healthy we only had to stay a few days over the normal hospital stay. The pediatrician agreed to let Gustavo come home on the condition she see him several times over the first two weeks in her office.
He had long skinny legs and feet that my husband and I teased each other about. We both claimed that the feet were an inheritance from the other’s family. Laying on the bed, with him in between us, we would tickle his long feet with a full heart I’m sure all new parents feel.
After the doctor said Gustavo no longer had to see her several times a week, the worry lessened. Soon it was a remember when story. He was now over a year old and those skinny legs were tan and strong. He stood holding a table in the waiting room and squatted up and down but still not ready to let go. I couldn’t wait for him to take his first step but I wanted my husband to be there for that moment. These were the days before milestones were shared with the world an instant after they occur.
The doctor looked concerned. She was asking questions I don’t remember being a part of any well child exam for the other kids. If something was wrong, I would have noticed. “Does he always flap his hands like that?”, she asked. I quickly reassured her that was normal. “He gets so excited and that’s how he laughs. He gets that from my husband’s side of the family. They all have funny laughs and quirks.” She didn’t seem convinced. I looked at my other son, just two years older than Gustavo. I told Mikey to laugh so she could see first hand. He was busy with the blocks she had in a bucket by the exam table.
She said he should be walking by now and wanted to have me follow up with a specialist. “Ah”, I said, “it’s his feet. My husband has the same feet and my mother in law said he took longer to walk than normal. Plus his head is a little big so we think it makes it hard for him to balance.” The doctor finished Gustavo’s well child exam and gave me an appointment card for the following week. She also gave me a sheet with a list of contacts for children with special needs. “Someone will contact you”, she said. She smiled and asked if I had any questions.
All children are different and normal child development isn’t nice and neat. It’s a spectrum. A word I would become familiar with. A spectrum. A range. It was autism. I was not a new mother. How could I have missed the signs? Walking in a grocery store or at the park, now I can spot the signs. When it’s an especially young child, I wonder if the parent knows yet. Gustavo learned how to walk. Among many other things, I learned a new language. People first speak. He is my son. He is a great many things. He has beautiful feet– he gets them from me.