I Saw the Signs…


People often ask, and I have countlessly asked myself, if there were early signs that my son, Joshua, was on the autism spectrum. Almost since birth, Joshua was an arm flapper. That was probably one of the most outwardly visible signs looking back. Predominantly when he was excited he looked like a big bird ready to take flight. Joshua also had tremendous problems with eye contact. People now tell me that this was one of the first signs that they noticed. Even now, when Joshua responds to a question he tends to look away from the person he is talking too.

He was a chair liner too. It almost became a contest where I would try to get all six chairs in their spot around the dining room table before Joshua could get them all into a straight line. I could tell myself that he was doing some kind of pretend play or some other creative genius but it wasn’t. It was more of an obsessive-compulsive trait where the chairs had to be perfect with the backs of each lined up impeccably. You couldn’t move the chairs or even sit in them without causing Joshua to go into a fit of emotion. Ironically, the chair stopping just ceased. We never knew why. We liked to think that some of our other interventions were working but I think that the compulsion simply got more sophisticated.

For example, Joshua learned his ABCs at an early age and would take the magnetic letters, generally made for a refrigerator, and line them up on the floor in a perfectly spaced order. The letters had to match too. They had to be all capitals or lowercase and from the same style and shape set. We had a huge tub of letters but you had to find the set that goes together in order for peace and harmony to exist. Joshua had to have toys the exact way they are pictured on the box and in doing any pretend play used stories from the shows he had watched or books he had read. The creative play and self-imagination was slow to develop.

Now when I look back on his childhood, there were other signs. Joshua hit most physical milestones on time. He rolled over around four months, sat up on his own by seven months, and walked at 13 months. At six months, I clearly remember him sitting in his Boppy pillow for support and studying the blue feet on his alligator toy that we named Benny, sometimes for an hour at a time. He could stare at those feet day after day and we never knew what he saw or what he was trying to see. We still don’t.  Looking back on it, this could have been a cue or a warning sign. But he was our first, he was perfect, and it was just chalked up to the way he was–a thinker, or an engineer perhaps.

Then there were DVD/VHS movie covers. Studying does not even begin to describe this obsession. Joshua could look like he was reading a movie cover. He would analyze them over and over and over. We still have a pile of them. This became hazardous when the videos were from the library but other than that it seemed harmless.

Looking back there were other signs that, had I done a little research, could have been indicators sooner. At Joshua’s one-year-old appointment there were a series of questions that the nurse asked prior to the physical examination.  Almost all of them were answered with no and should have been answered yes. Did he point at objects? Did he try to take his clothes off (e.g. socks)? Did he show interest in people?

You might see the signs too. You may chalk it up to a personality quirk, or believing it’s not a big deal since my child is on track with this and this and this. And in a lot of cases you may be right, but if you aren’t sure or if you have that concerned feeling, it’s time to ask.

Pam is the Executive Director of the Orange Effect Foundation. She worked in the marketing field for the past 10 years, serving as Chief Operations Officer for Content Marketing Institute. During that time she found her passion to build and lead amazing teams because of the commitment of the staff at CMI. Pam also helped to create Content Marketing World, an event where over 3500 marketers come together annually to learn and network with the best and brightest. Pam's background is in social work, and she is raising a son with autism so the opportunity to start and direct this nonprofit is a dream come true. She has been a key leader in the CMI Golf for Autism the past 11 years and a champion for many other nonprofit organizations.