Saturday, February 5, 2011

Happy Birthday Day Zack

Having children changes you.

Duh.  Brainstorm, right?

Thing is, the reality of those changes are very distant facts before they come to be.   You can read all the right parenting books (we did), attend classes on "discipline" and "punishment and reward" (a couple), and laugh about how "life is going to change".   You are never quite prepared for those changes, however.   They are usually far more difficult, challenging, wondrous and more mysterious than ever imagined.

Three years in the saddle with Madison, and we thought ourselves pretty prepared for Zack.  And in some ways we were.  Madison hadn't quite gotten away from diapers and bottled milk, and even though her sleep patterns had leveled off her nighttime feedings weren't so far behind us that we'd fallen out of practice too much.   She still needed lots of help for babyish things, so adapting to a newborn wasn't so hard, really.

Now, Zack's first two years did bring some changes.  The most immediate coming when he started walking.   I hate to fall into all the gender stereotypes, but we learned very quickly that our active, vibrant, vocal and STRONG boy was going to be different than our little girl who liked to be read to, who liked to sit and line all her animals up in neat little rows and liked to talk to them and carry on conversations with them.

Zack liked running.  Jumping.  Headfirst into the couch.   There's no coincidence that one of his earliest Halloween costumes was Bam-Bam from the Flintstones.  Fit him pretty well.

The biggest changes came first in Madison, because Zack's arrival impacted her in unanticipated ways.  Before Zack, Madi was a quiet, demure, relaxed child who was remarkably low maintenance and trouble free.   However, she'd had Mom and Dad's complete focus.  When Zack became more demanding, so did she.  This sounds like basic compensatory behavior; ie. she became jealous.

Far more than that.  Madi would flip from quiet, calm, and reserved to uncontrollable in moments, usually when in public or at family gatherings.  Loud noises - Zack crying, especially - reduced her to tears.  Her aversions to certain foods and almost compulsive vomiting increased drastically.   Zack's arrival didn't just make her jealous, it sent her off the edge.

Eventually we had Madison evaluated for Autism, ADHD, and other things.  Those tests came back negative, but further evaluations placed her on the extreme edge of what's known as "The Autism Spectrum", a classification of behavioral issues linked to autism and other disorders.  If anything, Madi seemed very, very close to Asperger's: high intelligence, highly verbal, wildly sensitive to sound, light, extreme temperatures, very excitable, hard to calm down.  

We began intervention, which involved Madi receiving OT (Occupational Therapy) and for a short time PT (Physical Therapy).  We adjusted to have a child with a behavioral label: "Sensory Integration Disorder".    We enacted a rigorous "brushing protocol", regimented our schedule even more (we needed a timer to get Madison to transition away from something), we got a weighted blanket to help her sleep better, the whole deal.

In retrospect, Madison's early diagnosis was a godsend.  Now, she's completely phased out of her services and is normal, happy, healthy - and maybe a LITTLE excitable - girl.  However, if we hadn't already been in "intervention mode", we might never have caught the signs in Zack as early as we did.

He'd just turned two.  Not speaking yet, and very clearly becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated at his inability to communicate.  He screeched and yelled and cried.  He didn't know how to play.  He'd fiddle with a toy for a second or two, chuck it, and fiddle with another.  He ritualistically and mindlessly emptied Tupper Ware cabinets and the DVD shelves.  And Abby - who stayed home with him most the time - was almost at her wits end.

We evaluated him for Speech.  He was assigned a Speech Therapist who would also become a godsend herself, and they assigned him a Special Instructor.  An OT therapist.  A social worker.  We had a liaison with the County Health Department and school district.  All this stuff you expect to happen to other kids.

Because even after Madi's issues, autism was not a change we were prepared for.

Two years ago,  Zack gained admission into highly prestigious preschool/ Research Center at Binghamton University, specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (Recently, a parent from Sweden moved to the US so their teenager could attend).  Since then, he's gone from having command of one word: "Mommy", to well over two hundred, with the ability to express himself through constructed phrases, sentences, questions and answers.  

We've also discovered that the little pisser has QUITE the sense of humor - he's kinda sarcastic, even - and he's wildly adept at counting, skilled with numbers and can recognize them near and past the hundreds.   He's very mechanical as well, simply "knows" how things work and they can be taken apart and put back together.  We had a rough patch with his sleeping at the beginning of the year, but we visited a chiropractor - who prescribed a non-narcotic solution in melatonin - and that's gone back to normal, thankfully.

We still have our moments, however.  We exist in relative peace because we still maintain a rigid daily structure.  On weekends/days off we maintain the nap schedule, they have a bedtime and lunch/dinner schedule, and we still pay a price when we alter that schedule for family gatherings or special events. 

Also, as intelligent as he is, he's still a bit delayed in his emotional reactions and ability to explain them to us, and verbally he's still a bit behind.  However, he's remarkably good natured and is in many ways more self-managed and polite than a lot of kids Madison's age.

We have truly been blessed in Zack and Madison.  With more than we ever asked for, true.  But celebrating his 4th birthday today is a milestone, because two years ago - that word "autism" was like a death knell, quite frankly.  Abby knew nothing about it, and unfortunately - having worked with those most heavily afflicted with it, I knew TOO MUCH.   I had visions of Zack being forever trapped in a world he didn't understand and couldn't communicate with, that he'd never know about simple things like birthdays and Christmases or other things that most kids thrive on and parents take for granted.

Possibly the greatest gift today is that Zack knows his birthday is coming.  He'll understand what we're celebrating today, and he'll "get it" when it comes to the gifts and cake.  Two years ago, such a thing seemed very far away.

Also amazing is that long before Zack's birth, because of the population I worked with, I wanted to write an autistic savant into my fiction.  I researched it, plotted scenarios and drew up lengthy chapters and character studies of several different autistic savant characters.  In fact, the first short story I ever sold references this "special autistic boy" - before Zack was ever diagnosed.

How's that for serendipity? 

Anyway.  We've come very far, which makes today's birthday that much more special.  Happy birthday, Zack.