encounter in the park
5 August 2005

Damian was jonesing for the playground today, so to the playground we went. He scaled the heights of the jungle gym, worked his way across the monkey bars (with a small parental assist), stepped carefully across what he calls the Spiderman web (a kind of sideways rectangular rope ladder contraption), and then wanted to walk on a spinning barrel, a device which looks very much like a huge rolling pin.

Only he couldn't. A younger child was there, busy scooping up wood chips, covering the top of the barrel with the scraps and then spinning it to scatter the chips. After which, he'd start all over again. Wash, rinse repeat. Damian, perched on a ladder above and to the right of him, said, "Excuse me, I want to stand on that."

No answer.

Damian again: "Excuse me, I want to go on that."

No response. Of any kind.

I came over. My child now has fairly decent social skills but he doesn't always know what to do in tricky situations. Like this one.

I sensed something about this kid. So instead of coaching Damian on what to say, I spoke directly to the child. "He wants a turn, do you think you could let him get on?"

The boy not only didn't say anything, he didn't look at me. Not only that, though. His body language didn't acknowledge my existence.


I looked at his father, standing on a kind of bridge a few feet away. "Does he speak English?" I was already pretty sure that wasn't the issue, though. Even a child who doesn't know the language reacts to someone standing that close and addressing him. Even if the words are meaningless syllables to him.

But the father answered. "Not really, no." Okay, well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe the language barrier really did make him freeze up. But no, the man went on. "He doesn't speak much Spanish either."

Oh. Ah. Um.

The child, I learned then, is about to turn four this month. And doesn't talk, doesn't look at you, doesn't have social reciprocity at all.

I stood closer to the boy, right behind him. Spoke softly, explaining that he needed to share the barrel. I was pretty sure at this point that it didn't matter what I said, but, as with a cat, it's about tone of voice and affect. I then put my hands on his shoulders very gently and moved him back, away from the barrel. Because otherwise he'd have continued his perseverative play for god knows how long. That kind of obsessive activity can go on for minutes on end.

I know. I remember.

The boy let me handle him, made a small protesting noise about being separated from his choice of play (I felt like I dodged a bullet there), and then wandered off. As Damian got on the barrel, I talked a bit more with the dad. Who is in utter and complete denial. His son doesn't talk because he's home alone with his dad all day, watching TV. He just needs to be around other kids more and then he'll pick it up. And he also doesn't talk because he's learning two languages and that causes a delay. Yes, it can. But not TWO AND A HALF YEAR'S WORTH. And it doesn't explain the complete lack of social awareness.

Only one thing explains that.

How do you tell a stranger that his son is autistic?

I didn't. I just said that he could use speech therapy, that we got it for my son, that it works really well, that you get it through the school district even if your child isn't in school yet, and that it's fun for kids. And if I'm wrong, hey, why not at least check it out? Can't hurt anything. But really, it does help. And the earlier the better. And so on, the whole soft-sell spiel.

It made absolutely no impact on this man. He will do absolutely nothing until his son's kindergarten teacher says "We have a problem here, sir." And by then it might be too late. At the very least, they'll have lost a lot of so-precious time.

I watched the man follow his son across the playground. Saw the child avoid other kids, or, in one instance, look at a girl for a second and then go on with what he was doing. No interest, no engagement. I saw the father and son go into the toddler playground where the boy went down the slide. Saw the man lie on one of the slides and the boy get frustrated. Start shrieking, a kind of wordless caw, a sound I've never heard a neurotypical child make, though I have heard it plenty of times at Damian's old therapeutic preschool. And in this case, a bit more motor planning ability would have let the boy realize he could just go down the slide right next to that one. But he was stuck on that one. Couldn't think past it. I did I hear the boy say something. One word, over and over and over again. So he has some language, which is what his father said too. That he has a few words. But Damian had language too. A lot, actually. Just not the way you'd expect it to come out.

I know with a deep and abiding certainty that this boy is on the spectrum. I know, too, that his dad loves him. I saw a tenderness in his affect, his responses. I'm sure he wants the world for his child. As we all do. And yet he wouldn't hear this from me. Did I say it wrong? Should I have talked about developmental delay instead of speech delay? Should I have even used the big scary word, sound the alarm good and loud to break through the man's layers of denial? Do I have that obligation? Do I have that right?

Watching that man and his son was hard. So hard. That might have been Damian, if we hadn't gone into early intervention. By age four, after a year of floortime, Damian was already way past this boy. More interactive, more connected, certainly more talkative. But at age two, two and a half, that was me following my speechless child as he ran this way and that, almost aimless in his meandering, that was me trying to force interaction (on the slide) while not even realizing that's what I was doing. That was me, not knowing what I was missing as a parent and yet knowing too.

I don't know how you help someone wake up from that frustrated innocence. I am so far from that now. These things, these deficits, are so very obvious now, it's like that boy had a neon sign over his head spelling out the diagnosis. And usually, if I see signs of a problem, I feel an obligation to say something. Because catching it early is so important. And intervention can be so crucial. And I want to help. But how? How much can I say? How much should I say?

If you're reading this and you too are a parent of a spectrum kid and if someone came up to you in the park pre-diagnosis and said "Get your kid checked out, he [or she] is in trouble," how would you have responded?

What's right here? I want to know for future reference. How much is okay to say? How blunt can we be? It matters so very much but how much right do we have to meddle in a stranger's life?

If you want to answer, feel free to pop over to my blog post linking to this entry and leave a comment. I truly do want to know. Because I'm sure this will come up again. Maybe even with this same father. After all, Damian will want to go to the playground again soon. And this bothers me. Very much.

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