When my twins were born in August 1996 autism was distant thunder on the horizon. I’d heard about it vaguely, but it seemed so mysterious and rare I couldn’t imagine it would ever affect me. Since then, diagnoses of autism increased tenfold and it has definitely shaped my family’s life. People often ask me when I first noticed that my son, Fraser, was different. I struggle with what I knew then and what I’ve come to understand. On a beautiful autumn day, I took my two-year-olds for a walk in the fields at the Ontario horse farm where we lived. Suddenly, in mid-stride, Fraser froze. His head was at an odd angle, his hands suspended in the air as he stared into a distance I couldn’t see. I tried rousing him, snapping my fingers and gently shaking his shoulder. He didn’t move for nearly five minutes and then he startled as though waking. That was the moment. Something wasn’t right.
Looking back now, I recognize the thief that was stealing my son, but then I didn’t know what I was seeing. As a newborn, Fraser frequently went stiff as a board, his limbs so rigid that I could balance him in the palm of my hand. He startled violently at noises and seemed overwhelmed by light, sound, smells, and touch, screaming in response. He also failed to breastfeed productively and had terrible digestive issues. At the twins’ first birthday, Fraser lagged behind his sister, Hallee, in his developmental markers. I worried about that, but our kind country doctor reassured me that boys develop slower than girls and said to give him time. During floor play, Fraser lined his toys up like a train, preferring to play alone. What language he had disappeared. Instead of using words like his sister to request, he often used my hand to point to something that he wanted.
After the staring spell, which recurred several times, we took Fraser back to the doctor feeling concerned that he might be having seizures. We put him through an overnight EEG in hospital, saw two neurologists, and were nearly torn apart by a misdiagnosis and the suggestion that we institutionalize him. Finally, one day when I picked the twins up from daycare, our caregiver told me that a friend who had experience with developmentally disabled children observed Fraser for the day. “That little boy has autism,” the friend said. We saw our doctor and he sent us to a children’s center for developmental disabilities where Fraser was finally diagnosed at age three. Now, we know that early diagnosis with intervention therapies as soon as possible can dramatically improve the futures of autistic children. Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of autism, and if you recognize them in your child, be brave enough to seek a diagnosis immediately. Autism is, indeed, strange and mysterious, an amazing journey in many respects, but with love and intervention, it isn’t always a tragedy.
Shannon Wray is a writer and television producer with credits in both Canada and the U.S. Raised in a Hollywood show business family, her aunt is Fay Wray, Canadian actress, and star of the classic film King Kong. Ms. Wray has enjoyed careers in music, book and magazine publishing, television and film. Currently, her family is the subject of the upcoming CBC POV documentary film, Love, Hope & Autism airing on March 18, 2018, and she is at work on a companion book to the film entitled A Different World. Shannon lives in a small mountain village in Southern California with the love of her life and her son, who has autism. Her daughter is graduating from film school this Spring.