There are a lot of articles floating around the Internet written by mothers raising an autistic child or two. Some pieces are beautiful and full of joy, others, unfortunately, are heart wrenching and very sad. I wanted to share a father’s view — how I felt when I realized my only child, a son, was diagnosed with autism along with the unending love I have for him.
Jenna and I were older in life when she got pregnant so we were very careful. We saw the doctor regularly and she did everything a pregnant mother should do. I couldn’t have been happier as we had a healthy baby boy that was such a joy to us that we enjoyed being parents. I envisioned myself playing catch with our son, Cory, and doing all the things a father and son do when he gets older. It was a wonderful time in our lives and we felt very blessed.
We were very in tune with Cory as we read a lot about parenting and what a child should be doing at a certain age and noticed Cory wasn’t doing some of those things. He was not talking nor attempting to, was not responding to his name, and he had little eye contact, if any. At first we thought that he was just delayed so we did everything we could to help him catch up. I started reading about autism and the red flags that are associated with it. Jenna and I both agreed we needed to take him to a therapist to discuss Cory’s delays. She recommended we get in touch with Baby Net which is a company of therapists that work with children who have delays. We were qualified to have a speech therapist and an early interventionist come to our house two times a week for an hour each session. The therapists were excited to see Cory’s improvements each week and I praised Jenna on working with him on his alphabet and numbers. It was hard on Jenna as I would hear her cry at night and the only thing I could say was “Focus on what he can do instead of what he can’t.”
One time when I came home from work I found Jenna and Cory sitting on the floor in the kitchen pushing a ball back and forth to each other. Jenna was saying “On your mark, get set, go” and then roll the ball to Cory. I was watching and cheering and one instance Jenna said “On your mark, get set,” and Cory said “go” and rolled the ball to Jenna. We were so excited that he said something that we hugged and kissed Cory. Jenna was crying as she was so happy and went to the bathroom so Cory wouldn’t see her since she didn’t want him getting mixed signals. At that moment we got renewed hope that Cory just had a speech delay rather than autism and we relished in that fact as we were newly optimistic that boys just develop later that girls. Every child is different….
Baby Net did tell us about an autism screening session that could be done. So, we took Cory to the facility and he engaged in a three-hour screening with a couple of therapists performing different programs and tasks. I watched and was actually very pleased with how Cory performed that I was confident I would hear that he was not autistic. The therapists came to us after discussing the session and told us that Cory is on the autism spectrum and explained why. The tasks that Cory did were performed but his eye contact and how he performed the tasks were the problem even though the end results were correct. This was a shock to us as all our thoughts and fears were finally confirmed that Cory didn’t just have a delay he had a diagnosis. The therapists were very nice as they were very patient with all our questions and they gave us lots of reading material to help us understand this diagnosis.
So now we know… Immediately after we left the facility Jenna and I started crying and we gave each other a big hug as it was now confirmed. What were our options? We knew that Baby Net would end their services when Cory turned three and he would then go to a special needs class where he may not get the good help he needs. I knew that Cory needed better help than what the state of South Carolina could provide.
No doubt that all parents want nothing more than to raise children that are “perfect” in every way. They want them to be popular, smart, kind, and loving. After the diagnosis I felt a sense of mild depression because I worried about both my son with his diagnosis and Jenna’s state of mind. As the father, I felt that I had to be strong for my family and try to keep my mind clear so we could make smart decisions. I tried to be like a “rock” so Jenna wouldn’t worry about me and instead put all her attention on Cory. It was hard to concentrate at work sometimes as my mind would constantly wander to my family and what they were doing. Jenna didn’t have an outlet like I did with work, she was home with Cory all day which made her dwell on the situation. With each day I saw Jenna more and more accepting the diagnosis and working with him as a child with autism. When I got home from work I would just watch how Jenna interacted with Cory. She would talk to him, sing the alphabet, point to objects and say what they are. But I would constantly ask “Why us?”… we were devout Christians and good, kind people who would be great parents, so why did this happen to us? As much as I tried to accept it, something had to change….
We then agreed that for the sake of Cory we would need to move to a state where there were good schools that specialize in autism. We asked around and everybody said that the northeast had great benefits for special needs children especially ones with autism. We also decided that, in light of our situation, we would need help and support from our family that’s living in the northeast so we moved to Carbondale, PA to be closer to Jenna’s family.
When we moved to Carbondale we contacted a company that offers services for children with autism called the Friendship House. This is a place where children with autism go Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 3:00pm. Located in Scranton, PA, it’s a fairly large school where there is a one-to-one teacher to child interaction for the whole day. They have different sessions and programs that help with speech, the alphabet, numbers, social interaction, and stimulation. I couldn’t believe how great this school was and how devoted the therapists were to ensuring students receive the best care and personalized programs. I couldn’t have been happier with how great Cory took to the school and how well he was doing, it just confirmed that moving to Pennsylvania was the best decision for all of us.
Cory is almost four years old now and making great progress. He still mostly babbles but is starting to say some words and is doing great with the alphabet and numbers. He really enjoys the iPad where he has his games that I believe are helping with his learning. But I can’t help to wonder what his life will be like; will he go to college, get married, have children? We want to give Cory the best chance to be happy in life. He has been such a precious part of ours that we would do anything for him.
This was and still is a tough journey for us but one that we had to do for our son. Now that we’re settled we wouldn’t change anything as we’re getting great services for Cory and wonderful support from Jenna’s family. We knew things would work out for the best as we were doing it for the right reasons. We will always be optimistic and dwell on what he can do instead of what he can’t. We will praise his accomplishments and help him when he needs it. Our son is a beautiful child with a beautiful mind and we love him very much.
Mark Peterson is an Engineer for a local cable company and resides in Carbondale, Pennsylvania with his wife, Jenna, and their son, Cory. Cory will turn four years old in March, and was diagnosed prior to his second birthday. The Petersons relocated to Northeast Pennsylvania from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, so that Cory could attend an autism specific program in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Cory is thriving in the Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention program, and his parents are thrilled with his progress.
This article was featured in Issue 45 – Protecting Your Child with Autism