Cherie Tiffany felt there was something wrong with her baby soon after he was born. Instead of being comforted by his mother's hugs and kisses, Austin disliked being picked up. He was extraordinarily fussy, screaming and crying for no clear reason. When Tiffany tried to comfort him, he grew more agitated. She soon figured out the best way to deal with his upsets: wrap him up in a cozy blanket, put him in his crib, and let him be.
Tiffany's baby was born with Asperger's Syndrome, which, in lay man's terms, is a mild form of autism. Today many of us know about Asperger's from T.V. -- last year America's Top Model featured a contestant with Asperger's, and Boston Legal features an eccentric and brilliant trial lawyer with Asperger's. But 11 years ago, in De Soto, Iowa, Asperger's was not widely understood.
Today we know that the behaviors Austin exhibited are textbook symptoms of a baby on what doctors call the autism spectrum. Nevertheless, says David Beversdorf, Assistant Professor of Neurology of the University of Missouri, diagnosing a pre-verbal child is very difficult.
Baby Austin was the result of a summer fling, and Tiffany, now 45, felt blessed when he was born. She was a successful insurance sales agent and saving to buy her own home. Yet there was a predictable void. She'd always wanted to be a mother.
But as Austin grew his upsets worsened. He was terrified of the vacuum cleaner. He howled when she used her hair dryer. Any sort of loud noise got under his skin, and she had to wait until he was fast asleep before turning on any household appliance.
In spite of his tantrums, Tiffany knew she had a precocious child on her hands. From pre-K to first grade he showed unusual scholastic aptitude, particularly in math. She says he went through computer learning games at lightening speed. "He ate them up something fierce! In first grade, out of 100 kids, only he and one other child were put into the gifted program. He was doing triple-digit addition."
Still, there were persistent signs that all was not well in Austin's head. For one thing, he chewed up the collars of his shirts. He'd come home from school and the fronts would be soggy with saliva. Sometimes he'd gnaw holes and she had to throw them out.
Then there was the school conference. It was recess, and Tiffany watched as his classmates played. Her child, on the other hand, seemed to be in his own world. Austin was just walking around the playground talking to himself. "He was talking to his hands, he was sort of making puppets with his hands. I thought, that's strange."
At the same time, life grew more difficult at home. Austin feared and loathed spontaneity. If, for example, Tiffany announced an emergency grocery store run, Austin would have what she calls a melt down. She would later discover that her son's despair was born not simply out of a desire to continue playing his video game, but anguish over what he perceived as an abrupt change of the day's plan.
The first half of second grade was the worst. He couldn't tie his own shoes or pull up his own zippers. His friends had zoomed ahead both in motor and social skills. Gym wasn't fun for the child whose (undiagnosed) Asperger's is characterized, in large part, with poor coordination.
Even his schoolwork suffered -- he was no longer the math star. Plus he developed extreme anxiety over tasks involving language arts or penmanship.