Big Family Trip

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 10.19.11 PMOver the summer we took a trip up north to visit family in Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and New York City. It’s a trip we try to take every two years, since both sides of the family live in the region and the boys have cousins around their own ages on both sides. It was planned as a pleasant two week journey through three states and a half dozen cities tied around a work party that Papi Bear had to attend in Annapolis.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma put a fast halt to the trip about halfway through. We live along the south eastern coast and there was a chance that we would have a direct hit. We realized this while visiting my aunt and great aunt and uncle in a rural part of Pennsylvania. We had plans to spend a nice day with them in a local museum, but we had to cancel and run back to Washington DC so Papi Bear could fly home immediately and secure our house. I was left with the children, basically waiting and hoping we had a home to go back to. The hurricane was predicted to hit on a Sunday, if I recall correctly, and we booked our flight back for Tuesday evening.

I called my aunt in Washington and informed her of the situation. The children and I were now staying three days longer than originally anticipated. Her response was, “Where do you plan on staying during that time?” I was a bit taken aback. I mean… I had other places and I actually had planned on calling other family, but I had assumed that given the fact that a Category 5 hurricane might plow into our home, she would open her doors to her niece and great nephews for a few more nights. I told her we would be staying with my cousin who also lives in DC.

We arrived to my aunt’s house and I packed the majority of our belongings into my husband’s bag, since he had the big suitcase attached to his ticket. I mean hurricanes almost always turn and airports open within 48 hours… It’s not like we wouldn’t be home in five days anyway. The family spent the night together at my aunt’s house and my husband left first thing in the morning. I had the kids out the door soon after to play in the park and stay out of my aunt’s hair. It was predicted to rain anyway, so I wanted them to have some fun before the downpour. It was clear that we were only welcome there one more night and I didn’t want to push boundaries or luck. She’s an older woman and never married or had children of her own. I have not-so-fond memories of how she treated me as a child, so I didn’t want my own children to have those types of memories of her. So far she had only been good with them.

When we got home, my aunt gave the boys two matchbox cars from the dollar store each. Little Bear started fighting with Big Bear over his cars and showed some of his typical aggressive behaviors that he was displaying at the time, heightened by the fact that we were on vacation, out of our home, and out of our routine. After the second or third time of hitting his brother, my aunt slapped him.

I told her not to lay a hand on my child. She said, “Well, he needs it. You’re not disciplining him and that’s why he’s so spoiled.” I said, “He’s not spoiled. He’s 2 and autistic. He doesn’t understand. He has the cognition of an 18 month old.” She said, “That’s just an excuse. It’s a lack of discipline.” She went on to complain about Little Bear’s autistic meltdown the night before when he was starving in a Mexican restaurant that, no joke, did not have rice or eggs. She also complained that I allowed him to play with a fork, which is apparently the sign of a bad mother. I told her I was leaving. She said, “Oh, don’t be that way.” I told her that if she can’t accept my children for who they are, then they aren’t going to visit. I can’t change that Little Bear is autistic. He gets intense therapy to work on his behaviors and he is improving by leaps and bounds, but it should be expected that a week away from home is going to bring out more behaviors from him.

I packed our bags quickly. I paused to think about who to call. I settled on a friend in New Jersey who also has children the same age as mine. She is from the same city I currently live in, so she would understand what I was going through, since her family back home was in the same situation. She said yes, of course we could crash at her house for as long as we needed to. No end date given… as long as it was unsafe to go home, we were welcome in her home. And let me add another note… I met this woman on the internet two years ago and we were phone friends who had never met in person. She opened her house to us. My own aunt slapped my autistic child, called him spoiled, and asked where we planned on staying. Sit on that for a moment.

Before heading to New Jersey, we stopped to see family in Philadelphia that we hadn’t been able to see before. I have a cousin there who, with his wife, adopted a little boy at birth around the same time Little Bear was born. This was the first time we were meeting their son. We had dinner with the family and then headed to visit my friend.

Nikita and her husband live in an upscale town and have two beautiful children: a girl who is right between both of my children in terms of age, and a 9 month old. We arrived late, so the boys went to bed immediately. The following morning, Big Bear started to play with Nikita’s daughter TT. Big Bear and TT hit it off right away and, to this day, are still BFFs and ask about each other often. We have them speak on the phone and we’ve been able to get them together in Orlando as well, where they had a blast together. Considering how shy Big Bear is around new kids, I was shocked and thrilled at how quickly he and TT became friends.

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 9.46.05 PM.pngWe spent four nights at Nikita’s house. We visited the zoo together, went to parks, and on Saturday I went into NYC to visit friends there and relieve her of our presence (although she later said she wished we’d been around because Big Bear keeps TT out of her hair). On Sunday it was clear that our flight was at very high risk of being cancelled. I started to freak out. I just wanted to go home. Never in my life have I wanted to go home so badly. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful to Nikita for her hospitality – I was – but I just wanted to be in my own city, in my own home, in my own bed. I looked up car rentals to leave from DC (where my car was due back). They were only $9.95 a day to pick up in DC and return a hotel very close to our house. I sighed. Could I do it? Could I really drive all the way home?

I rented the car, packed immediately, and started back to DC.

We were driving home.

Our route was from NJ->DC, return car, rent new car. We would spend the night with a cousin who lives in DC and then drive to South Carolina to stay with my sister for two nights, then home.

Our first leg was 4 hours. I learned to count long car rides in terms of 2 hour distances during this drive. The kids could get through 1.5-2 hours with their favorite toy/book and then another 2 hours with the ipad and then they would usually be able to fall asleep from boredom, if we hadn’t already arrived at our destination by that point.

We arrived in Virginia early and I took the kids to Monkey Joe’s to burn off energy until my cousin got off work. I stopped at Target to do some shopping for winter clothes, since I had sent most of our warmer clothing back with my husband and a cold front was coming through. I also bought a pair of earbuds with a microphone to avoid driving and calling/texting.

We had dinner with my cousin and her children and I put Little Bear to bed in the living room. I took Big Bear with me to the airport to return the car. The following morning we went to the park outside her house to play for an hour or two and then started on our way to South Carolina to stay with my sister. Driving time: 8 hours. It was not nearly as painful as it sounds, although it was pretty damn painful. The boys were well-behaved and I talked to a few friends on the phone to pass the time.

We arrived at my sister’s house sometime in the evening and ordered dinner from a nearby restaurant. The kids refused to eat what looked like the worst mac and cheese ever. Whatever. I put them to bed and crashed with them.

We went to a local children’s museum the next day so that their trip wasn’t completely awful. We had dinner with my sister afterwards and played on the playground at her house. We had planned to leave early the next morning, but I was reading on facebook that the trip home was taking three to four times as long as usual once you crossed the Georgia border and that there was no gas in sight. I freaked out. I went to Walmart and bought a gas can. Filled it up. Loaded the kids. And we left for home around midnight. I made a reservation at a Disney resort for the following evening because I knew that there was ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that Disney did not have power at this point. It was an 8 hour journey.

I stopped and refilled at every gas station that I saw once I was a quarter tank down. I also peed in a Big Gulp cup twice when the inside area of the gas stations didn’t have attendants or the kids were asleep. It was awful.

The drive was dark and boring. I played Hamilton over and over and over. Big Bear woke up two or three times. Around 4AM I felt myself fading. I pulled over, attempted to nap. About 10 minutes in, Big Bear starts talking to me. I was crying, “Please let me sleep. Just ten minutes.” I did this again around 5.

When we hit Georgia, the lights were all out and the sides of the road were a parking lot. All of the exits were closed. The number of vehicles that lined the shoulder started off in spurts, but turned into rows after a while. All I could think was, “Thank god I left at midnight because otherwise these cars would all be on the road.” Followed by, “Those lucky bastards are probably sleeping.

We arrived at Disney World around 10AM. I’m pretty sure I cried when we parked. Pretty sure. Checking in was a nightmare of a wait, since our reservation wasn’t tied to their app and we didn’t have Magic Bands, since we had literally just made the reservation the previous night. After a meltdown (from me) from waiting in an endless line the second

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time – just trying to get my room number – a manager took us into a room, calmed us (me) down, and gave us three extra fast passes for the day.

We went to our room. I was totally 100% ready to sleep. Not the kids, though. They were bouncing off the goddamn walls. So I drove us to Magic Kingdom and we rode a few rides, heading back to the room around 5 or 6. We all crashed immediately and slept until 8 the following day. I don’t think I’ve ever slept that well in my life.

The next morning we checked out and went home to start the adventure of no electricity post-Irma. Luckily our house, cars, and property sustained only minor damage.

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School Assignment

Yesterday was D-Day. We received Little Bear’s school assignment. Papi Bear and I were nervous, almost as though this were a decision as to whether or not our baby was going to an Ivy League school. First, they reviewed his assessment. We agreed with everything stated. Then we both started thinking, “Oh wait. Did we make him sound too good? Maybe they won’t even consider him for school. Crap. We need to make him sound worse! He needs to be in full day preschool with an IEP!”

FullSizeRender 3Next came his medical history. Then came his speech history. Then came his physical therapy. It was almost an hour of going through who exactly Little Bear was and what exactly his deficits were.

Then came the moment where they explained the different programs.

“One of the programs your son tested for was the ASD program. Your son has a social smile, attempted to engage strangers, enjoys playing simple games, and has developing joint attention. He also has over 200 words. Because of his social and verbal abilities, your child does not fit the school board’s criteria of ASD. Keep in mind this is not a medical diagnosis and is simply the criteria of the school board. It will not affect any services your child is currently receiving.”

I could feel Papi Bear breathe a sigh of relief. This trip has been an even bumpier ride for him than it has been for me. He only sees Little Bear at night and on the weekends, when he’s least structured and most likely to act out. His culture is also not one that takes the bull by the horns when it comes to dealing with special needs. He hasn’t told many people about Little Bear outside of his immediate family. This gave him hope that his son was simply not that social – just like he was as a young child.

Now we were sweating again. Did he place at all? He must have. He must have placed somewhere. We thought he was at a lower level than his brother at his age. He was, wasn’t he?

“Little Bear has been assigned to the Intensive Full Day program at Big Boy Elementary School.”

That’s Big Bear’s school! Our boys were now in the same school! Thank goodness! We were terrified that we’d be facing two buses, two schools, two pickups, two sets of events, etc.

I had originally requested that Little Bear be in the same class with his brother, but his brother is in the larger class size, so it’s not possible. They’ll be right next door to each other, though, and they have recess and playground together. I’m okay with that.

And that’s where we are. Little Bear is going to full day preschool at the end of the month in a small class with other kids that have similar developmental levels. He was not deemed high enough need for a special needs school, which means his ABA, OT, PT, and SLP have brought him a long way from where he was in March.

More than once I’ve considered calling Fancy Preschool and telling them, “Guess what, Fancy Preschool director. The school board says my child does not need a special school and is perfectly capable of being in a regular classroom as long as there’s a smaller class size and he has a little more help.”

Little Bear celebrates his third birthday this weekend. We’re taking him to Disney to celebrate. He doesn’t really care much, but his brother has been talking about it non-stop. Fun times this weekend for the Bear family!

“I don’t think his final diagnosis will be Autism.”

In 2002, I met a girl online while searching for other fans of a Spanish pop singer. We quickly became friends and, when my best friend died of lupus a year later, she was a huge support for me. Fifteen years later, we remain close friends and confidants. During those fifteen years, she went on to become a Pediatrician. Dr. Friend now works at the clinic of a prominent hospital in her city.

She lives far away from us, so she hasn’t seen Big Bear since he was a baby and this was her first time meeting Little Bear. She knows that Little Bear has an ASD diagnosis and I had told her about my husband’s freakout on Monday.

Little Bear has done phenomenally at home with me this past week. On Monday, he was throwing tantrums and wouldn’t sign “want” at all. Today he didn’t throw a tantrum until 3 hours into our day when he was legitimately tired and done. When we did our puzzle together, he not only signed “want” every time, but he coupled it with “Yo” (“I” in Spanish) and the name of the animal that the piece was related to. This was after only four days of working with him at home. He is like a different child.

So it was this Little Bear that Dr. Friend met. She gave him a board book of Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See and, after reading it twice, read Dr. Seuss’s ABC with him. She was surprised to see that he knew huge portions of the book by heart and was able to turn the pages with minimal help.

Later, we took our cat to the vet since she had been suffering from a UTI for a week. Little Bear fell asleep in the car on the way. I asked Dr. Friend to stay in the car with him while I took the cat and Big Bear inside for our appointment. At some point during the appointment, he woke up and she brought him inside and showed him the cats and the fish. During the entire time, he was well behaved, held her hand, and smiled at her while he laughed at the animals.

Later that evening, Papi Bear and I took her to a Brazilian restaurant for live music and too many caipirinhas. After two or or three, I asked her for her opinion on Little Bear.

“I only just met him, but I don’t think his final diagnosis will be autism. He doesn’t exhibit a lot of the signs of children on the spectrum. He is delayed linguistically and socially, but he was completely fine spending time with me and he’s very interactive with people he knows. He’s very affectionate, he follows directions or he at least understands them and chooses not to follow them.”

She advised us to continue with his therapies, get as many as possible, have him in the special needs school for at least a year, but she thinks he will eventually mainstream.

I think this is what my husband needed to hear and I do think her comments are more along the lines of what the neurologist feels, even though his therapists and pediatrician continue to say he is autistic. Ultimately it’s the symptoms that matter rather than the actual diagnosis, but to hear from a trusted friend that he is social and cognitively where he should be definitely relieved some of my anxiety.

Semantics

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Today a friend I knew when I was in grad school made a post on facebook during a trip to the local fair asking something along the lines of “is it normal for 5 and 6 year olds to have pacifiers and ride in strollers now?” This friend has always had a penchant for the sarcastic and lives in a heavily hispanic area despite being a white man, so it was quite obvious that his comment was saying, “Latinos, you need to get your kids up and walking and not give them pacifiers.”

My children are Latino. My 4 year old rides in a stroller when we go to theme parks for safety reasons.

I decided not to play into the racism of the comment and instead mentioned that many children are special needs and require sensory stimulation in crowds and need to be in strollers for their own safety or they may simply be disabled. A friend of his responded, “Their kids will end up gap toothed and having weak legs.”

The conversation moved towards “well, there must have been a lot of kids with autism there!” My response, “1:42 boys have it. My son is autistic. So was Thomas Jefferson.” To which gap-tooth-weak-leg woman said, I kid you not, that *I* was being ableist for calling my child autistic.

I have heard the idea of “autistic” being ableist before. I have heard the arguments of  it not defining the child. I have heard them and as a mother of a child with this disability and as a linguist, I wholeheartedly disagree. I respect the desire of people who want to be referred to as “having autism” and will always follow their leads (or that of the parent in the case of young children), but I will not be told by the mother of neurotypical children how I should refer to my child who is on the spectrum. Take a seat. Pull out your suitcase. Unpack for a minute. I know I had to before writing this post.

If given a choice of terms, I would say my son does not have autism. To me, you have diseases. He didn’t acquire autism when someone sneezed on him. When he was born, he was hard of hearing. He was not “without hearing.” We don’t change the morphology of any other disability-related word to make it less “defining.” Why are we afraid to define our children or, in adult situations, ourselves, as autistic? Why can’t we embrace it as a trait rather than an affliction to be “had”?

My son was born with autism. It may not be in his DNA as far as the geneticist can see, but his tendencies were visible soon after birth. Autism is part of him. He doesn’t have it any more than he has latino heritage or white skin. He is latino. He is white. He is autistic. No, it doesn’t define him, but it certainly makes up a large part of his world view and to take that away from him and isolate it as a sort of illness is offensive to me as his mother. Also, I feel like saying he “has autism” gives the false impression that it’s an issue to be cured. He doesn’t need curing. He may need therapy to help him navigate the world, but he certainly doesn’t need a “cure” for his autism. As a very staunch pro-science mother, I also feel this term plays a bit too much into the woo ideas of it being curable through pseudoscience.

I am certain that as Little Bear grows autism will be an important part of his identity.  Every part of his identity deserves an adjective. He came to us with both a full head of hair, light skin, and autism. Calling him brown-haired, light skinned, and autistic are just naming three aspects of his being that make him my beautiful, special little man.

If he decides that he feels differently as he matures, I’ll change my way of referring to him, but for now, he is my autistic son Little Bear. If the person has any background in medicine, I may say he’s on the spectrum. You will never hear me introduce him as “my child with autism” unless the day comes when he says that’s what he wants.

So the ableists who want to call out the mom of an autistic child for defending her child and his culture… they need to take a goddamn seat and check their privilege while not defining my child according to what they feel defines him and doesn’t. Autism defines my child. Latino defines my child. South American defines my child. North American defines my child. Bilingual defines my child. Adorable defines my child. Just as a word can have many definitions, so can a child. Autistic is just one of the many listed under the dictionary entry of Little Bear.

Look, Mommy! It’s Little Bear!

We were running around the playground playing monster. Mama Bear being chased by Little Bear and Big Bear, although Little Bear inevitably ended up behind and the chased. Lots of laughs and giggling, but then Little Bear tired of the game and decided to walk around and play alone, as he often does.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 1.05.59 PM“That’s Little Bear!” I thought I heard a voice yelling.

Nah, it must be another Little Bear.

But I heard it again and again. And a mother confirming her daughter’s comments.

There was a little girl on the playground who knew Little Bear from Fancy Child Care Center. I introduced myself as his mother and talked to the child’s mother for ten or fifteen minutes. I apologized for my son’s disinterest in her daughter and let her know that he had ASD. She said she understood, although it was quite apparent from later comments that she didn’t. She revealed to me that her daughter had been one of his biting victims, although, seeing Little Bear’s delays, she didn’t seem especially upset by it. She brushed it off as, “She came home saying, ‘Little Bear was mean to me!’ and I told her that I know she’s been mean, too, and so have her friends.”

I explained about the ear tubes and their effect on his behavior. She asked who his ENT was because her daughter needed them. I gave her his name and information and she said she’d heard wonderful things about him. I told her how the fluid had affected his balance so profoundly as a baby that he didn’t walk until a week after they were placed. They were life-changing for him.

Then came the unsolicited advice and excuses, as it always does in these possible-friends situations. I expanded on his delays and she said she had read that children usually focus on one skill at a time, so maybe he was focussing on his gross motor skills rather than his speaking and social skills. She adjusted the amber bracelet on her daughter’s wrist as she explained this alternative fact mined from Google.

I didn’t want another mother to hate me and my child for his disability, so I, “oh, really?”ed while willing my eyes not to roll. Since I didn’t let them roll, I had to also try to fight back the tears that want to escape when I have to make the mother of a neurotypical child understand that my child is not neurotypical and will almost certainly never be neurotypical.

Her daughter tried to play with Little Bear. He would follow her when she ran, but he didn’t know how to interact with her. He just didn’t know what to do and it breaks my heart all over again.

But… in other news… today he said, “There you go” multiple times in socially appropriate situations. Also, he and his brother did an excellent job of taking turns playing a game on the ipad.

Papi!!!

Little Bear has been going through a Papi Bear phase lately, but it has always hurt Papi Bear that he doesn’t say “Papi” (or Mama, for that matter). He’ll say it when he’s not around, he’ll say it when he’s gone, but he never says it to him, and that’s what really matters to us.

Today we decided Little Bear would come home from school at 11:30, because it seems that most of his trouble happens in the afternoon. Papi Bear dropped him off at 11:45. I opened the door and Little Bear smiled at me and said, “Hi!” I said, “Papi! He said hi!” Little repeated, “Hi, mama!” and giggled as I took him out of his car seat. I held him up to the window and he pointed at Papi Bear and said, “Papi!”

Me: “Dijo Papi! Lo escuchaste?!”

Papi Bear: “Parece que si, no?”

LB: Papi! Papi!

Papi Bear almost cried. I could see the tears as he said, “Por fin, hijo. POR FIN!”

And then LB proceded to have a complete meltdown because Papi Bear had to go back to work. Five minutes screaming at the door, “PAPI! DADA! NOOOOO!” I opened the door and he ran to the end of the driveway and looked for his Papi, screaming because he wasn’t there. I dragged him back inside and called Papi Bear through FaceTime. I handed Little Bear the phone. Little Bear calmed down. They “conversed” for five minutes and LB kept his own face visible the entire time. When Papi Bear said he had to go, Little Bear said, “Muah, Muah, Muah! Bye Bye!” and blew kisses to his Papi. He didn’t cry at all when he gave it back. He took his milk, went to bed and is now napping happily.

And Mama Bear and Papi Bear are both so happy with their little boy’s new milestone.

When autism is enviable

Two years ago, shortly after Little Bear was born, I became active in an online group for evidence-based birth information. I started chatting with a girl that was living in the country my best friend was born in and who had given birth to her first son in another country in the same region. Since she was living in Latin America and I was married to a man from Latin America, we had common interests and became occasional chat buddies.

When she became pregnant with her second child, our conversations moved towards sewing. She and I had both recently begun classes and we both used cloth diapers with our children. She was tight on money, so I sent her a box of cloth wipes that I no longer had a need for. She showed me her progress on diapers she was making for her second little boy, proud of the improvement she was making on each one.

In August of last year, our lives and our friendship took a dramatic turn as I dealt with the diagnosis of Little Bear’s autism and she dealt with her son being born with severe illness that was not immediately defined. At first they thought Down’s Syndrome, then they thought it was a heart defect. The newborn was airlifted to a larger hospital and mom was left with no answers and a thousand questions. I was similarly flailing for answers with Little Bear’s diagnosis. She was one of my anchors and I’d like to think I was one of hers. It was like we were both swimming in a sea of uncertainty and we were grabbing towards each other’s hands, hoping neither of us drowned.

Then, in November, we both received answers. Little Bear might not be autistic. He might actually have delayed myelination and outgrow many of his symptoms. We would repeat tests in a year to see. It was like a lifesaver of hope had been thrown to us and we saw so much improvement from his therapies, that we suddenly felt like we were coasting by.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 11.52.03 PMMy friend also received the answers she waiting for, but it was no life preserver. No, she was thrown a pair of cement shoes: ARPKD. Her son had a genetic defect that had no cure. He would not live to adulthood. Possibly not even past early childhood, given the symptoms that were already evident at birth. Her world crumbled around her. Her boys’ father was no longer in the picture. Her baby was going to die. She felt that she was leaving her older son with nothing more than an absent father and a dead brother. My heart broke in two for her.

She took her older son to be tested last week. I waited anxiously for the results. I was certain he was fine. He was already four and asymptomatic. There was a 75% chance that he was carrying healthy kidneys and healthy genes. She texted me on Friday night with the results. Her older son was also affected. Both of her children would die before they were 21.

My heart broke into a thousand pieces for this friend. I’ve never even heard her voice, but I sat in my car and cried buckets for a woman I’ve only chatted with. I cried for a mother who would lose her entire world in one decade. I cried because I want to continue to hold her hand through this, but I feel that she may end up resenting me and my “problems” with Little Bear. My Little Bear who will one day be a Big Bear and have a completely normal life expectancy. We were two mothers navigating the waves of emotion that accompany the unknown medical diagnoses of our children and one of us was left with a non-neurotypical child and the other was left with two terminally ill children.

The guilt. I feel so much guilt. I have no reason to feel this guilt, but yet I feel it because I don’t think it’s fair at all for a mother like her to have to suffer through this. I feel it because I’m still upset about Little Bear, but Little Bear is growing bigger and stronger while her boys will eventually grow weaker and lose their kidneys. It’s not a fair friendship. I won the freaking lottery of problems compared to her. The goddamn lottery.

I put her in touch with another internet friend who has a son with a mitochondrial disorder. Her son’s life expectancy is similar to the poor mother who will lose her two boys. She has also already lost a child due to a surrogate who didn’t have a c-section early enough when there was a labor complication. She has become the new hand to hold for my online friend. She knows the drill. She also guides me on how to talk to this friend so that she doesn’t feel like I’m babying her or ignoring her.

Autism is a difficult disorder to deal with. Trying to peak into my son’s world and mind can drive me to tears at times. However, there are more and more moments when I feel like he’s left the window open – maybe even the side door – and I can see inside and really know him for a few moments before it closes again. I feel like there’s hope that one day he might invite me in for a conversation and we will know each other. This will continue until I depart this earth before him, as it should always be.

My friend has two children who are neurotypical in every sense of the word. They are happy, active, “normal” children with not a worry in the world. Happy, active, neurotypical children who will have to come to terms with their own mortality before they even begin to live.

I feel so guilty that I lucked out and got an autistic son.