Milestones and Autism

Milestones. They matter.

As a new parent, I paid attention to the milestones listed in baby books, like I thought I was supposed to. Roll over? 3 months. Check. Sit up unassisted? 5 months. Check. Crawl? 7 months. Check. Walk? 10 months… or maybe 11? Check. Potty trained? 3 years. Check.

Thing is, milestones look very different once a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder–the two disorders my son was diagnosed with just after his third birthday. Celebratory milestones for a child with autism could include wearing a new clothing item, jumping on a trampoline for the first time, or making eye contact while posing for a picture.

They’re different.

You see, many of the activities and milestones that children learn by observation or seemingly through osmosis, children with autism have to be explicitly taught. And even then, some children with autism may not reach certain milestones. For example, my son never pointed. I would watch babies in their mothers’ arms extend their index fingers and point at lions and tigers at the zoo, and wonder why my toddler, who was so much older than these tiny babies, never pointed at anything. It’s called joint recognition, something I learned later, and connects to the social skills often lacking in people with autism. He had to be taught to point to items. He had to be taught that if he showed me the animal he was looking at, I would look, too, and we could experience that together. He had to be taught to bring me to preferred objects and food that he wanted me to retrieve for him. He didn’t just learn it. Watching us wasn’t enough.

When we moved into our new home nearly four years ago, my husband made sure that all the exits to our home were equipped with locks and childproof doorknob covers. Recognizing that the proximity of William’s to the top of the staircase posed a threat to his safety, my husband removed the bedroom doorknob and turned it around so we could lock it from the outside. (Please, spare the judgment on this one. We have plenty of reasons as well as emergency procedures in place).

Moving on…

I’m not quite sure if it happened one or two years ago (they’re all starting to run together), but William was not feeling well one night. He fell asleep, but at some point in the night, I thought I heard him coughing. I checked the monitor and watched as he rolled over, became quiet, and fell back to sleep. My husband and I decided to go in to check on him. He had vomited at the edge of his bed–perhaps he was attempting to get out of bed?–then rolled back to the top of the bed near his pillows and fell back to sleep. This absolutely shattered my heart, you guys. I couldn’t handle that he didn’t think to call us. He could have been so sick and feverish that he didn’t realize he had vomited… he could have been so tired that he actually decided he didn’t want to be bothered with our help or the inevitable bath we would give him… it didn’t matter. My son couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t know how to call my name. He didn’t know how to get help when he needed it.

So we did what we always do. We practiced.

I would stand at the bottom of the stairs and Jimmy and William would stand at the top of the stairs. Jimmy and William would call my name and I would come running. Then we would switch places. We explicitly taught him that if someone was in another room, he could call them for help and they would hear him.

It didn’t seem to work.

Until two Saturdays ago.

Two Saturdays ago, William woke before my husband and me. Typically, on a given weekend morning, he’ll find a book or his iPad and begin to play, make some noise, and we’ll hear him and go to him to say, “Good morning” and start the day. That Saturday, however, he didn’t start playing and we didn’t hear him like we normally do. Instead, he stood at his door and tried the handle. Through our video monitor, I heard the gentle shaking of the doorknob. And then immediately after, I heard a sweet voice call, “Mommy?

He called for me. HE CALLED FOR ME.

It sounds so insignificant even as I type it, but I promise you, this is huge.

I thought it might have been a fluke. A one-time occurrence that I could brag about to my parents and my husband’s parents. Something we could quietly celebrate in our home. Something we would go back to hoping would really stick eventually…

Tonight, I kissed William goodnight like I do every evening, and I went to take a shower and change my clothes. After my shower, I I stood in my room wrapped in a towel, and I heard, “Mommy! I want Mommy!” I ran into his bedroom. He laid in the bed, squinting at the light coming through, and looked at me. I said, “Hi baby, what do you need?” He answered, “I want Mommy.” I told him I would be right back, and after I got dressed, I laid down with him. He was so overtired from a long day at school and therapy, so I did some joint compressions and massages, deep breathing, and singing, to get him to relax. And he fell asleep right on my arm.

SleepingSo while he’s sleeping, I’m celebrating. That’s an autism milestone, friends. William has learned that he can call for me. For his daddy. For a teacher. For another family member. He can use his voice to summon a human being to help. And he understands that someone will come.

You won’t see it written in any cute little baby book decorated with blue ribbons. But it’s an important milestone for The Book of William. And we are so proud.

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