Recognizing The Signs Of Autism In My Son: Why Didn't I See The Red Flags?

There’s always one kid in the neighborhood everybody loves to torment; in Windsor Heights it was me. My short list of therapy-inducing childhood memories includes being stuffed into a sleeping bag and tied to a tree branch, being locked in a garage and pelted with bottle rockets, and being excluded from everything potentially fun, competitive, or criminal. I would laugh about it later, of course, when I managed to reach adulthood.

But now I have a son of my own. His name is Aaron. The first blow hit him right in the freckles. I didn’t give him a brother and he never had many enemies, or friends, so it was his first fist to the face -- and it landed right where his mother kisses him at bedtime. That first punch, like a first kiss, sort of, without the spit, is something a guy never forgets.

The second blow knocked him off the curb and into the street. His backpack, a fifteen-pound pile of hardcovers he carried but never read, slid down off his shoulders and pinned his wrists to his sides. One of the boys planted a Nike: Aaron skidded out onto the asphalt, his shirt collecting all the grit and gravel within a spit-wad’s reach of our driveway, barely thirty feet from our front door.

No one saw a thing; I called around to ask.

In my mind’s eye I can see Aaron smiling as he’s falling, and he’s wearing one of those silly little grins -- he was always smiling at the wrong times. It never occurred to me to tell a nine-year-old not to grin if he was getting his tail kicked. ****

It was late afternoon when Katherine met me at the door with details and evidence in hand. Parenthood has a way of repeatedly pulling this kind of thing on you. Won’t there ever come a day when I see it coming? Maybe a red flag in the yard, so I know to keep on driving?

I examined his pants with the dirty shoe prints and a street-scuffed shirt with a heel mark, while Aaron stood, shifting from foot to foot, chewing his T-shirt. A dark saliva stain the size of a softball fanned out from the hem.

“Show your father your face,” Katherine said. “Show him your face, Aaron.”

Aaron stood before me. I couldn’t help but smile at first -- until I saw the welt beneath his eye. “Oh no,” I said, lifting a finger to touch it. He wouldn’t let me. “Was the kid who hit you wearing a ring?”

He popped the wet cotton from his lips. “Duh,” he said.

I’d spent half my life dreaming about things that never happen. But this? I grabbed my boy and squeezed -- his spindly body, smooth arms, elementary-school aroma -- and just like that got caught up in something. No doubt there’s a name for it somewhere in some parenting textbook I never read, a name that captures the notion that there’s a reservoir filled with everything we’ve ever held back, and that it can rise up and splash without warning.

“Let go of me,” he said.

I didn’t want to. Cross-examination time. “Do you know these boys?”


“Are they from your school?”

He nodded.

“Did you run into them on the playground or bump them or say something or…”

No, no, and no. He’d done nothing. I believed him. They’d followed him home from school and pounced.

“Man,” I muttered, flashing back decades to the angry face of Danny Murphy, the kid who chased me around a parked car screaming that he wanted to pound my face in. What had I done? Nothing! Not a thing! “We’re going to do something about this, Aaron. I’m going to do something,” I told him. “What they did was wrong.”

He looked at me and nodded.

“I’m going to stand up for you,” I said.

Why didn’t my old man ever say that for me?

Aaron provided a thin description of the perpetrators -- shirt and hair colors, tennis shoes -- and we set off on a bully hunt. It didn’t take long to spot one, and when I pulled up to the curb, just a block from our house, he took off. I threw the car in park and opened my door. A man in a nearby driveway stood hosing his cement. I went to him and asked if he knew where that boy lived.

He squirted a shot of water into his next-door neighbors’ yard. “Right there,” he said. “Joshua.”

I asked for the family’s name. He didn’t seem embarrassed about not remembering it: “We don’t get along that well.”

When I got back in the car I had more than a fleeting notion to tell Aaron I’d taken care of everything. Part of me wanted to lie and wish it all away, to tell him I’d just talked to one of the boys’ dads and that everything was taken care of. I yanked the keys from the ignition. “I know where one of them lives,” I sighed. “Come on.” ****

Joshua Templar's mother was preparing for a party, and in spite of the fact that she'd never seen me before, she opened her door wide enough for me to get a good look inside. Her living room was decked out with balloons and candles, and a table next to the baby grand piano was covered with silver-wrapped boxes. A dozen framed photos of smiling, well-dressed people lined the tabletops.

I introduced myself with a handshake -- who knew pressing the flesh was involved in getting to the bottom of such things? -- and told her where I lived. Then I introduced Aaron and told her my son had been “roughed up” on his way home from school. She gasped, naturally; one of those “In this neighborhood?” reactions. Aaron stood silently at my side, chewing the bottom hem of his shirt.

It wasn’t until I described the perpetrator’s hair and shirt color that the woman’s hand snapped up to her mouth. “Joshua?” she asked.

“I don’t know. But the one who punched his face wears a ring. You can still see the imprint on his cheek.” I pointed at my boy.

She leaned in for a look, and her lips moved. Her eyes welled.

I looked at Aaron, Aaron looked at me, and we both looked away and out toward the man still hosing his driveway. He gave us a thumbs-up.

As Joshua’s mother apologized, Aaron grew fidgety. He just wanted to see someone get whacked, or so I figured. Or maybe it was me.

Joshua, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. I gave his mother my phone number, and we left with her promise that she’d call us when she got her hands on her son.

Forty minutes later we were back on the doorstep, but this time I was nervous. I’d had time to fantasize about outcomes. Was Joshua’s father going to be there too? Aaron was especially twitchy.

"We have to do this," I told him. "We have to. I know it's hard but..." I have six thousand clicheés and speeches awaiting delivery, yet not one of the focuses on what to say or do when your kid gets beaten up without provocation.

The boy described as “white hair, red shirt” came out of the house with his head down. His mother pointed to a step; he sat. She made it clear to us that Joshua was in trouble of “the most serious kind, I can assure you.” He had admitted that he and a friend had lashed out at Aaron after school.

“Why?” I asked. “Why did you hit him?”

Joshua shrugged.

“Did Aaron say something he shouldn’t have?”

He shrugged some more.

“Is he in your class at school?” his mother asked. I already knew the answer to that one: Joshua was a year older. So was the other kid. Still, Joshua said nothing, no matter what was asked or who asked it. For a kid with such a loose temper, he sure had an economy with words.

“I’ll tell you what, Joshua,” I said, “I want you two to stay away from each other. At school, around here—anywhere. Understand? If you see each other, then ignore each other. Just keep away. Got it?” A little voice inside my head cheered Go, Dad! You’re the man! I’d tracked down a bully. I’d faced a fear. I’d shown my son what it meant to identify a problem and take action to fix it. This was going to go down in family lore as one of my shining moments. I’d make sure of it.

Okay, I thought, so Aaron took a punch. Life’s not fair, right? Maybe now he’ll be more wary, more streetwise. That would be good.

With a vision of my wife’s proud face flashing through my mind, I bid good-bye and was one step toward the street when Joshua’s head snapped up, and he growled in a voice that would have sent me running if he’d had scissors.

“He sniffed me!” the boy shouted. “That’s why I hit him!”

I turned around. “He what?”

“He was sniffing me! He was sniffing all of us, at recess. He wouldn’t leave us alone!”

“He was sniffing you? What do you mean he was sniffing you?” His mother crossed her arms fast and tight.

Joshua snorted his wrist. “Like that!” he said. He snarled and thrust a ringed finger at Aaron. “I told him to stop and he wouldn’t! It’s embarrassing!”

We all turned to Aaron. He squeezed his eyes shut.

“That’s still no reason to…” I began.

“So we followed him. And when we came up to him he put his arms out and said, ‘Group hug!’”

Aaron’s teeth clenched so tight his lips went white at the edges.

“He’s weird!” Joshua screamed. “Group hug? That’s why I hit him! ’Cause he’s so weird!”

Joshua buried his head in his knees and began to cry.

“Aaron!” I growled. “Did you…Did…? Aaron!”

No matter what I said -- and I’m not sure of everything I said or tried to say in those next few moments -- my son would not speak. He’d jacked his shoulders up so high they had glued themselves to his earlobes. He wouldn’t even open his eyes, not when I put my hand on his shoulder -- gently -- not when I asked him to “Look at me,” and not when I commanded him to “Say something!”

Everything suddenly looked different, my boy in particular. “You sniffed him?!”

Our secret was out.

Aaron had been sniffing things around the house for a long, long time -- sniffing our clothing, his toys, the doorknobs, the cat, the furniture -- and chewing things too, mainly his T-shirts. And towels. And the curtains. Pretty much any piece of cloth that hangs. These were problems we hadn’t solved yet. That’s how I looked at it. A handful of strange little habits. Things he’d grow out of. Private, harmless, around-the-house quirks.

There now were just three of us accessible for conversation; Aaron had shut down, and I knew him well enough to know that once he’d shut down there was no turning him on again. I offered a brief apology -- it was my fault, I said, my fault, no explanation -- and steered my son toward the car. ****

The child psychiatrist came highly recommended. She was a "prodigy" in the field -- that’s one of the things she mentioned in our first meeting. “I am the best,” she said, clasping her paperweight and leaning toward us over the desk. “I will help you. I see children like Aaron every day.”

We told her the “roughed up” story.

“If you had only brought him to see me a couple of years ago,” she grinned, “I could have prevented this kind of thing.” Katherine hated her instantly. I, on the other hand, was curious. But my curiosity lasted until our second meeting, when, after spending forty minutes in private working with our son, she told us, “Why do you call this boy quirky? He is not quirky. He is autistic.”

Katherine grabbed the tissues. I bowed my head and closed my eyes. Red flags everywhere. Why hadn’t I seen them? Where had I been looking?


Flash forward. Several months have passed, and the neighborhood feels safe again. Things are looking up. Aaron no longer walks home from school, for one thing. We drive him -- to and from a smaller school with teachers who understand how to work with a variety of social and processing styles. I no longer dismiss him as “quirky,” either. Thanks to a team of agreeable physician who see lots of boys like Aaron -- we dumped the prodigy -- I understand that the autism spectrum is a broad one, and Katherine and I have spent days and nights learning all we can about what it means to have a son at the “high-functioning” end of it. Best of all, Aaron is thriving in a school setting for the first time in his life, and he’s no longer the only kid he knows who can’t stand hot dogs or hamburgers or fish or beans or rice or anything green or crusty or not folded or cut into triangles. He’s making friends. And having fun.

When his new school recently held a Friday morning doughnut-centered social activity for fathers and sons, we showed up early. Aaron grabbed a chocolate long john and planted himself on my lap. Small talk isn’t our thing, so we just sat and enjoyed the scenery. Every so often I’d reach up and squeeze his shoulder or rub his back, or ask him how many doughnuts he’d eaten. Four.

When it was time for me to go, I stood up once again. Aaron said, “Bye,” and I brushed a bit of chocolate from his face, from a nice tender spot just below a field of freckles. The skin there is still soft and as smooth as frosting. A minute later he was off to class, and I stepped outside into the California winter sun.

Out of the blue all of the changes that had altered our lives in the last couple of months -- all the worrying and wondering and retooling of expectations, all the appointments and arguments, all the everything -- came to a head. I was walking down the sidewalk when my eyes welled up and my chest heaved. I grabbed for a breath -- it was that secret reservoir again, way closer to the surface than I imagined -- and there were people heading my way. I made a point of looking up into the sun as I passed them. Looking into the sun brings tears sometimes. I didn’t really let go until I got into my car.