Nathaniel was a different child from the moment he was born. My husband was away at basic training, and I was back home, doing what many military spouses do. I was delivering a baby without my husband by my side. When the fuss subsided and all of the relatives went home, I was left at the hospital with my newborn. I had to argue with the nurses to leave Nathaniel in the room with me instead of letting him stay in the nursery while I slept. I am so glad I fought for that right because I got to know my newest son that night, and I learned that he was something special. Even as a newborn, he hated to be held and cuddled. He even resisted nursing because he couldn’t tolerate being held. He was very different from my oldest son.
As time went on, Nathaniel still proved to be a child with a unique personality. My husband and I decided that Nathaniel was just not a “people person” and was bound to be a loner. He preferred to be in his walker to being in the arms of his family. His language did not progress despite my efforts to help him talk. He never asked for anything; he simply took what he wanted when he wanted it by any means necessary. Nathaniel never sought comfort during illness, and he almost never displayed emotions.
Then, came the tantrums. His meltdowns (a term I never knew until after his diagnosis) turned on like a light switch. One day, during a move incidentally, he melted down for the first time. He was almost two years old, and it seemed perfectly normal to begin with. However, the tantrum didn’t stop. After two hours of screaming and injuring himself, I was genuinely scared and exhausted. Nathaniel, seemingly overnight, transformed from my very complacent infant to a defiant, angry, and disruptive, out of control toddler.
These meltdowns continued for a long time. I sought help from doctors. The doctors didn’t see what I saw. After three doctors, an international move, and a long process, I finally got help for Nathaniel in the form of Speech Therapy. We made the first appointment and hoped for the best. My husband took Nathaniel to his first appointment. His report after the fact was a little hazy, so I decided to take time off of work to make his appointment next time. I am glad that I did.
I remember the first time I went to Speech Therapy and More in Columbus, GA. It was located in a shopping center in a quiet part of Columbus. The whole center was painted lavender and smelled of fancy wax melts. It was safe and warm. I met the director, Denise Camp; she was dressed neatly, and she had the sweetest southern drawl. We went back to the treatment room that was filled with toys and tools. I had to sit in on the first session because Nathaniel screamed every time I tried to leave. Denise began her process of trying to get him to sit down at a table. Nathaniel did what was so very Nathaniel at the time; he began to scream and kick and hit. I chuckled under my breath, and Denise turned to me and snapped, “It’s not funny!” I knew it wasn’t funny, and she did not read my giggle correctly. I was embarrassed. I was terrified of my toddler, and I had no idea how to handle him. I didn’t understand him. I was so terribly ashamed of his behavior that all I could do was chuckle at his extreme reactions. At that point, I finally faced the thought that my boy needed serious help, and I needed help to be the right mother for him.
After months of therapy with Denise, Nathaniel was making some progress, but not as much as I had hoped. I thought speech therapy was going to be an overnight fix; I was very wrong. Denise approached me one day and asked how I felt about moving Nate-Nate to the new therapist in the facility. I was very nervous because it had taken months for Nathaniel to trust Denise, and moving to a new therapist might be devastating to the progress he had made. I agreed, reluctantly, to a trial session with the new therapist. I didn’t know at the time, but she was going to be a gift from the universe to help me on my journey of becoming a mother to an autistic child.
We met Ellen Gordon at the next session and she was a stark contrast to Denise. She was tall and slender with a relaxed appearance. Her first words were, “Let’s go play!” And play they did. Ellen gained Nathaniel’s trust and esteem quickly. Instead of sitting at a desk in a formal setting, she sprawled out on the floor with Nathaniel and played with trains and cars. Nathaniel was none the wiser to her tricks, and he just played and played. Soon miraculous things began to happen. Nathaniel began talking. He became more manageable in all aspects of his life. His meltdowns began to subside. I was in awe at the magic she seemed to be working on my son.
One day, Ellen, in all her wisdom, mentioned the word “autism.” I had no idea what autism was, so I rushed home and googled every possible website concerning autism. I took every test and self-evaluation I could find; Nathaniel scored nearly 90% every time for symptoms of autism. I felt devastated and hopeful at the same time. I didn’t want anything to be “wrong” with my son, but I felt like this was a possible explanation for his personality. Ellen guided me every step of the way to get a clinical test.
After several weeks, I received the test results, I thought I was prepared emotionally for the outcome. I wasn’t. I rushed to the psychologist’s office and snatched up the report. I locked myself in my car and hurriedly read over the medical jargon and graphs enclosed. Nathaniel seemed to be scoring high in each category, and I was hopeful. But, I am not a medical doctor and I had no basis for comparison on the scores; I was setting myself up for a slap in the face. I reached the last page, and on the page was a large header that read “Diagnosis.” I scanned the words, “Nathaniel’s symptoms most certainly are caused by autism.” Everything stopped. My heart fell and my eyes watered. For a split second, I was devastated. My son, so perfect in my eyes, was Autistic. His quirks that were so endearing to me, were a result of a disorder. My heart was crushed…for a microsecond. Then, I regained my logic, and I remembered that these were just words on a paper. They did not define Nathaniel in any way; they merely explained him. Nathaniel is no different after this diagnosis. He is still my bittersweet, charming, carwash loving, dark haired, handsome son. I went from feeling devastated to feeling overjoyed. My son isn’t wrong or disabled; he is unique and precious. I wanted so desperately to call Ellen at that very moment. I knew if I could talk to her, she could point me in the direction to begin therapy. I waited two long weeks for her vacation to end. I was so relieved to hear from her, and I poured my mind out over the phone. She, as always, had advice as to where to go from here.
Our time in Georgia is coming to a close, and our family is moving to a new duty station. A new home far away is always exciting, but my heart will ache when we say goodbye to Ellen. The family at Speech Therapy and More had changed my life and saved my family. Ellen made Nathaniel blossom. He started with only a vocabulary of eight words. Now, he can ask for things that he wants and needs, and his meltdowns are minimal. But Ellen didn’t just teach Nathaniel how to speak; she taught me how to be a better mother to all of my children. It is with a heavy heart that we will be leaving Speech Therapy & More and Ellen Gordon. This is meant to be my message of gratitude for all of the help and wisdom passed on to me from these amazing ladies. I would be lost without their help.