The children have a message

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Her incredible eyes – that is what I saw first. She seemed to look at everything at once, taking in this new place where she suddenly found herself.

"She smiled," said the nurse. "It looked like she smiled."

Of course, she couldn't have smiled. Smiling, or at least intentional smiling, wasn't supposed to be in her ability range, at least not for many weeks to come.

"I know she isn't supposed to be able to smile," the nurse said again, "but it sure looked like she smiled."

Finally, she started to cry, but it was a short-lived crying spell.

I reached out for her and pulled her into my arms. All I saw were those eyes, bright and inquisitive, looking up at me.

There seemed to be so much in her gaze, a kind of knowing beyond what one so small should understand.

"She sure is looking around," a voice said as they wheeled us into the hall where family waited. "Look at those bright eyes."

I cradled her close and watched as she moved her head from side to side as if she was scanning the faces that walked beside our rolling bed.

Later that night as I fed her, I was struck again by the intensity of her eyes as they looked up at me. It was something I would experience again and again in the months ahead.

Some of my most treasured memories are of nights sitting in the old rocker holding her, looking into her eyes as they slowly closed in sleep.

Perhaps it was the memory of those moments that made the loss of eye contact even harder when it came.

I can't tell you exactly when it happened, but slowly she stopped looking directly at me as often. Then I noticed her eyes didn't meet mine at all unless I forced it to happen.

Now, the words, "look at my face," are a regular part of my vocabulary.

It is not easy to watch your child slip away. To see the baby that crawled toward you laughing become the toddler who, at times, doesn't seem to know you are in the room.

That is what autism does. It takes your child into a foreign land. A place you cannot enter.

As my daughter's birthday approaches, I'm doing a lot of thinking about my experiences since that day when I first looked into those eyes. About what these last 11 years have taught me. I've certainly learned more about autism than I ever thought I'd know, but there have been other lessons, too.

Having this amazing child has taught me about priorities. I learned to let go of things that don't matter and to focus on the important stuff of life.

I learned to recognize and appreciate miracles, like the one that happened Saturday when my daughter spontaneously said an entire sentence at the lunch table.

I just read one of the best books on autism I've ever found. It is written by the grandmother of an autistic child. This grandmother, Jaquelyn McCandless, is also a physician, and since her grandchild's diagnosis has become a detective searching for ways to heal autism.

Her book is a step-by-step guide to the latest treatments. The treatments involve things like diet and vitamin supplements, and represent a shift in thinking about autism. It offers hope for those who struggle with this disorder.

We implemented some of the suggestions in the book and have seen remarkable results. Of course that has me excited and, yes, hopeful.

However one of the best parts of the book comes at the end and is written not by the physician but by her husband, Jack Zimmerman, PhD, who has been a partner in her search to understand autism.

I'd like to share a passage from the chapter. He writes about the increasing numbers of children who are touched by autism spectrum disorder

"We have come to believe that the special children are here in increasing numbers to change our fundamental cultural paradigm – to change the way we look at the world, practice medicine, educate our children, relate to each other, and, ultimately, the way we learn to become more alive."

These days my daughter is making eye contact more and more. The gaze is just as intense as it was when she arrived 11 years ago. Is she sending a message? Does she indeed, as I sensed 11 years ago, know something important?

It is certainly something to consider as we celebrate another birthday.