Once upon a time we thought we knew the answer to "what causes autism" (bad parenting, especially from mothers who were in the icebox rather than being on the soapbox).
Nowathese days, confusions runs rampant about "what causes autism." Could it be older dads? TV? infertility? chemical pollution? And then there are also the more-familiar theories of vaccines and mercury. At this rate, one starts to think that the next candidate for autism aetiology is going to be Goretex, spandex, pickles, or microwave ovens.
By this hypothesis (which is a purely fictional creation, on the order of my fanciful hypothesis that autism causes tv) I mean to go above and beyond saying that putting a child on a gluten-free casein-free diet can help allieviate the symptoms of autism. I am waiting for the day (or rather the online article that spreads like digital fire up and down the blogosphere) when a poster presentation at an academic meeting by faculty from some biggish-named school is seized upon by the press as The Next Big Autism Story.
If someone took data on Charlie eating something (and especially something that is on the Allergic To list for a kid who does have celiac disease) and some "behavior moment" happening, he might think he had the grounds for a research study (or at least a poster presentation). Charlie has always been a good eater, and I mean going back to when he was in utero and in his first year when he nursed with nary a difficulty in "latching on." Charlie has generally done pretty well sitting at the table at mealtimes because he tends to eat so long as food is visible (including on other people's plates).
This evening his food-gaze extended to what was behind him as well.
Charlie (and every other public school student in New Jersey) has Thursday and Friday of this week off due to the annual New Jersey Teachers Convention. His ABA therapist came early for a session (during which he had a period of running up the stairs every five minutes to check on whether a pot of rice was cooking). It was an above-average warm day and Charlie and Jim went on a long bike ride (during which a nattily attired mother worriedly pointed to the path ahead: "There's a snake!"; this was met by Jim and Charlie simply pedaling on) before meeting me in my office. Jim then went on into Manhattan to his office while Charlie and I drove to meet our friend and her three daughters to see Flushed Away.
Popcorn and a diet 7-Up kept Charlie in his seat for the first twenty minutes, after which there was a period of the hums and a walk to the bathroom, after which we moved to the side aisle. The hums stopped and Charlie sprawled with his back to the screen and his face on the chair back for a few minutes before turning around as requested, and then sitting placidly and alert, eyes on the screen (some scenes of wild boat rides through the sewer rapids especially kept him watching, and the chorus of pop-tune-crooning slugs seemed to help him stay centered).
After the youngest daughter had showed us a diorama with seashells from when they had visited us at the beach last summer, we went mall-walking; Charlie particularly liked checking out the merchandise in the Disney Store, overstuffed in anticipation of Christmas. We rode escalators together, the girls built Legos, we visited the Christmas tree with its crew of Christmas-light-bulbed reindeer. Charlie smiled and skipped, in anticipation of "fooood!" (the movie theatre is right next to the mall's food court) after looking at stores.
It was a fine thing to be sitting with Charlie beside me, across from the three girls, their mom on my left. Charlie ate sushi and a plate of rice and chicken with his usual speed. "Brown rice," he said to me, and I explained that the girls were still eating their food or (a few minutes later) that they had finished their food, and that it was not Charlie's to finish. I had turned my head to speak to our friend when I just caught sight of Charlie reaching to the table behind ours to grab a piece of pizza a slightly older girl was eating: "Charlie, you're not supposed to---" I said and pushed away the pizza. Charlie cried out and hit his forehead on the table.
He was crying and I reached through the tumult of sentences in my head----how could I have distracted myself, he must be 200% over-stimulated from the movie and the mall's smells and lights and hubbub, he was hemmed into too small a space---and said to the girl, "He's autistic."
She nodded. "It's all right." "I'm really sorry," I said. She smiled, not too nervously, and my attention was back on Charlie.
The crying soon stopped as I said a few fragmented explanations to our friend. I had Charlie pick up his tray and, on seeing someone who must be the girl's mother, I hastened to explain. "It must be hard," she said. And I said, without skipping a beat, "It's not, really." And asked if there were autistic students in her children's school (there are).
Charlie was somber walking back through the mall. After requesting "turn on" for music in the black car, he was silent. He ran into the house and up to the kitchen where Grandpa and Grandma were sitting. Before I knew it, he had found a box of ice cream sandwiches (which have more than a few things that Charlie is allergic to---wheat and milk) and had eaten a good third of one. There was too much talk in the wake of this---too many voices being traded back and forth, and then the nurse came in and pointed out a very large pot of rice she had cooked for Charlie, and I said he had already eaten dinner (leaving out the pizza part) and then Charlie had his head on the floor and I pulled him up.
Somehow he left the kitchen and sat down at the piano and, as we went through "Firefly" and "Happy Song" and "Rolling" and "Ode to Joy something eased in Charlie, in his face and his shoulders, in his jaw and the looks in his eyes. He put together two puzzles, announced that he wanted a shower, tried to pull out my ponytail, nestled himself amid too many blankets: "Beddtime."
And I thought, it was not so much Charlie's eating a bit of someone else's pizza or one of his grandparents' ice cream sandwiches that made him upset and preceded the bangs. It was the instant when he was told "you're not supposed to....," when Charlie knew that he had been "caught" in flagrante delicto and any thrill he had was already gone away from knowing (by my tone of voice?) that he had done what he ought not to. The instant when he remembered, if I do this Mom is going to be mad and I'm going to feel bad, only it was too late.
You can't put back pilfered pizza.
You can say a most emphatic "yes, let's" when friends, having witnessed what it can be like, say good-bye with just enough of a hug or shake and earnest proclamations of "we'll see you really soon!"
In all the mess and sigh, the smiles of stress, of another Autismland day, it is cause for celebration.