What Autistic Kids Need More Than Counseling

It pains me to admit that I still have relatives who do not understand autism. That is especially true because I have a younger cousin who has this condition.

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Let’s call the little cousin by the name of John. My aunt and her husband separated when John was only seven years old. It was such a messy breakup that my grandparents decided to step in and look after my cousin so that my aunt could work full-time and build her life back up.

When my aunt chose to go overseas to work as a doctor, John was left in the care of my grandparents. They sent him to the same private school I went to; they got the best tutors for him because his mother previously said that he was not very academic. The only problem was that John was still failing as all he wanted to do was play on one particular swing, watch his toy train move, or both.

At the time, I was only ten years old. My parents and I often went to my grandparents’ house for a Sunday BBQ dinner. Since John and I were closer in age than our other cousins, we usually played together. Oh, let me clarify that — I usually tried playing with him, but he did not always pay attention to me.

It would have been understandable if I made John play with my Barbie dolls or tea sets. However, because I knew that boys were not into those, and I wanted to befriend him, I would ask him to jump with me on the trampoline, do cannonballs at the pool, etc. But no response — he seemed too happy to be by himself.

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Then, I would sometimes have his classmates talk to me about how John did not even know the answer to 0 + 1. Even though I was still young, I knew that’s not normal, so I told my father, a child psychologist, about it. It was not to snitch on John but to find a way to help him because I loved my little cousin.

Would you like to know how my grandparents and aunt reacted when they learned about it? Gramps and Granny went to the school to bribe John’s teachers. They were supposed to become John’s new tutors. During exams or quizzes, the teachers were supposed to help him answer all the questions. For instance, if it were a four-choice question, they would have to eliminate two choices to make it easier for John to answer them. They said, “Nothing is wrong with John other than he could not keep up with the other kids academically. We know he’s a smart boy. He just needs time.”

When my father was not satisfied with my grandparents’ reaction, he decided to call John’s mother. Before making the call, Dad sounded so sure that his sister would side with him and want to have her child diagnosed with he suspected as autism. After all, she was a doctor. If anyone would understand how mental disorders worked, she would.

Thus, you could imagine my father’s shock when my aunt ended their conversation abruptly. Dad had not even begun to talk about his observations during our Sunday get-togethers, and my aunt was already upset. She said the same thing that my grandparents did, “Give John time. He’s only a little slow for his age, but it does not mean that he has a long-term condition.”

Seven Years After That

John got through elementary with his teachers making shortcuts for him left and right. It continued even in middle school, especially since my grandparents and aunt decided to keep him in the same private school. In reality, though, they could not take John anywhere else because no other school was willing to accept bribes from parents or guardians.

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What happened to John, you might ask? He was breezing through life. He developed a somewhat cocky attitude, which he would mask around the family, but I heard all about it through friends. They told me that John barely attended classes. He was always at the basketball court, shooting hoops, or watching other kids play. Sometimes, John would let the teachers persuade him to return to the classroom; other times, he would ignore them completely.

Despite such odd activities, my aunt and grandparents still believed that John’s actions were normal. Their new alibi was, “John is a growing teenager. It seems typical for teenagers to act like a rebel sometimes.” But once John graduated from middle school, they faced a dilemma because the private school did not have grades 11 and 12. Meaning, John had to enroll in another school.

Facing Issues

The closest high school to my grandparents’ house was known for doing psych evaluations to potential enrollees. John managed to get one foot in instantly because Gramps was a former principal there, but the school psychologist voiced her concerns about John after the first interview. She practically said that she did not know why John was never sent to a SPED school, where he needed to be.

I was accompanying my grandparents at the time, so I saw how shocked they were. They also seemed offended, saying that John was “normal.” But it was the psychologist’s turn to get surprised as she found out that my cousin had never seen a mental health professional until now. She suggested that my cousin skip at least a year of schooling and receive proper diagnosis and treatment before it’s too late.

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Again, my grandparents took offense to that. Granny, still in denial, said that there’s nothing wrong with John. And if there was, he could go to counseling after classes. However, the psychologist calmly noted that continuing to deny that John showed symptoms of autism would hurt his future further. She said that John needs acceptance more than anything. “I could not fathom how hard it must be for you, but you must accept that he is not ready to keep up with the other kids. He needs proper mental assistance and care,” the psychologist added.

There was an extended family meeting that night. I did not join it, but I heard John wailing from the other room, saying that he wanted to go to school in his garbled speech. Luckily, my aunt and grandparents knew what’s best for him this time.

After getting diagnosed with low-functioning autism, John got enrolled in occupational therapy for a year to help him handle life situations more. My aunt also finally agreed to send him to a SPED school instead of bribing his way through high school to prepare him for the future.

It had only been two more years, but we could all see a change in John’s behavior. He was more attentive and more curious than ever. He had better control of his emotions, too.

That high school interview was John’s lifesaver that his mother and our grandparents never knew he needed.

Accepting Child’s Autism Through Counseling

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There was a lovely family in the apartment complex where I grew up who was loved by many. They always had good food and were more than willing to share them with everyone. Mrs. Lopez even saved many parents in the building from daycare centers because she opened her doors to the little kids whose moms and dads had nowhere to leave their children as they go to work.

When I said that the Lopez family was loved by many, I only meant the elderly couple. It did not extend much to their only child, Luna. Luna was around my age, and she grew up to become an average teenage girl who craved going to parties more than anything in the world. And as an only child, she was used to getting her way out of everything.

But then, one day, gossip buzzed throughout the apartment complex. We heard that Mr. Lopez had enough of Luna’s antics and disowned her. Later, we found out why: she got pregnant at 16 years old.

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When The Prodigal Daughter Returned

Two years already passed, and no one thought that we would see Luna come back. However, I saw her come up the building on a Wednesday afternoon with a toddler. I didn’t see much of the child’s features, but it was safe to assume that that’s the same kid she was carrying in her womb when her father threw her out.

After an hour, Mrs. Lopez was knocking on our door. When I opened it, she hugged me and said, “My Luna came home with this little angel. Can you watch her for a minute so that we could talk to her mother?”

That’s only when I saw the child – a little girl named Charlie – for the first time. She was so cute with her golden locks and porcelain skin. I said hi to her, and she did not reply, but I thought that most kids around that age were a bit shy.

The family discussion turned out to be fruitful as Luna moved back in with her parents on the same day. She apparently promised to clean up her act and start working hard to provide for her child.

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Love And Concern For Charlie

Luna’s return allowed the entire apartment complex to get to know Charlie. Everyone grew to love that little girl. She was pretty and quiet; she did not act up like the other kids. However, some concerned individuals mentioned that Charlie was too quiet for her age and kept to herself most of the time.

Back then, I was already a sophomore in college, taking up psychology. Though my expertise was still lacking, I saw some possible signs of autism in Charlie. I let another year pass before I voiced my concerns to Mrs. Lopez as I gave the child the benefit of the doubt. Some kids develop slower than others, after all.

To my surprise, Mrs. Lopez said that she had been noticing the same symptoms in the house as well. She wasn’t just not saying anything in hopes of them going away on their own.

“Perhaps you could discuss this with Luna during dinner, and then I will accompany you to a child psychologist that I know,” I offered.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Lopez told me that she would not go through with the consultation the next day. “Luna took it badly,” she confessed. “My daughter accused me of not loving my grandchild for wanting to have her seen by a psychologist.”

I felt terrible for Mrs. Lopez upon hearing that, but I honestly felt worse for Luna. She was clearly in denial. It was pretty certain that she had seen the symptoms in Charlie, too, but she refused to believe that her child needed help. I dropped by the restaurant where she was waitressing so that we could have a chat.

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Counseling A Parent In Denial

Though Luna and I were never friends, we were cordial to each other. When she saw me waiting outside the restaurant, she came up to me and agreed to go to the nearest cafe. 

After a few small talks, Luna opened up about the situation at home.

“Mama must have told you about her wish of taking my daughter to a child psychologist,” she started.

“I suggested it to her,” I admitted, “But please don’t take it the wrong way. You will be able to help Charlie better when you know what’s going on with her.”

Luna sighed. “I know what you mean. I also know something’s wrong with my baby’s behavior. But letting a doctor see her means that I’m accepting that I failed Charlie. I failed as a mother.” With that, silent tears flowed down her cheeks.

It was the first time I witnessed how much Luna matured, and I could not help but feel sorry for her. I decided to extend the counseling duties I took on during summer break at the university hospital and counseled Luna. I helped her accept that she could not have prevented her child’s mental condition. All she could do was ensure that Charlie was getting all the help she needed.

A few months later, Charlie got diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and Luna showed bravery by not crying in front of her child. In truth, she worked harder than ever so that Charlie could continue getting therapy and whatever support she might need in the future.