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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.