Autism Isn’t A Lifestyle Choice

Autism diagnosis continues to increase year on year. With that comes more awareness and hopefully more acceptance. More and more adults are now seeking diagnosis and some even ‘self identify’ as autistic. Not a day goes by when there isn’t a press article, a blog, a meme or a TV programme featuring or talking about autism. So has autism become a trend, a cool thing to be, even a lifestyle choice, and is this right?

Autism isn’t something that should ever be taken lightly. For many, my son and daughter included, it’s a significant disability requiring life long support. They made no choice is being autistic and they can’t choose to stop having it either. It’s part of them p, and always will be.

Recently I was having a discussion with someone and I was asked if I said my children were autistic before they had their official diagnosis. Of course they WERE autistic before they had their official diagnosis, they were born autistic after all, but prior to official diagnosis I said that my children were ‘under investigation for autism’ or ‘waiting to be tested for autism’ and later on, having sought advice from their paediatrician, I was told they had a ‘working diagnosis of autism’ meaning everyone was treating them as if they had an official diagnosis as we waited to reach the top of the waiting list so they could access services immediately based on need. I never once said they ‘were autistic’ as a formal diagnosis until it was confirmed.

Things were similar with my husband. He suspected he was autistic, as did every professional working with us, but as nothing was confirmed we didn’t say to anyone. That wasn’t because he wasn’t autistic it was because, until confirmed, it was based on suspicion, our own research and the thoughts of others who were unqualified to formally diagnose. Until formal diagnosis my husband didn’t tell anyone he was autistic or even suspected he was autistic, other than me. After diagnosis he was happy to share the news both privately and publicly.

Yet everyday on social media, in comments on this blog and in groups, I see self diagnosed adults with no formal diagnosis of autism confessing to know more about autism and my children because they ‘are autistic’ or ‘choose to identify as autistic’. It’s become ‘normal’ to be allowed to say you are autistic even without any formal diagnosis.

Autism isn’t like being vegetarian or vegan, it’s not a religion you choose or a trendy way of living or identifying. You can’t be autistic one day but not the next when it suits you. You can’t be at little bit autistic’ either and you absolutely can’t pick and choose autistic traits like it’s a pick and mix in a sweet shop!

Doing a Facebook quiz and getting a certain score does not mean you are autistic. It means it might be worth investigating further; nothing more.

Now let me clarify that I am well aware that the more information about autism there is the more likely many adults will discover they are actually on the spectrum. This is exactly what happened to my husband but the words of the doctor we went to at the time have so much wisdom in them:

Autism is something for the experts to decide, not individuals, because like any condition it needs thoroughly tested. For everyone’s sake it’s better to know for sure than assuming anything.’

Autism for all three of my family is a disability. In no other disability would it be acceptable to just say you have a condition without actually having proof. You may be diabetic or have Scoliosis or have arthritis but until a doctor or expert confirms this it is dangerous to take medication for those conditions and say you have them if you don’t. There is a valid reason why many services need an official diagnosis before you can access them.

Now I know formal diagnosis for autism isn’t perfect. I know there are a few people misdiagnosed by the experts and I appreciate waiting lists are long. I also appreciate that access to formal diagnosis isn’t always even available.

However, if you have truly and thoroughly researched autism and believe you are autistic then by all means share your thoughts privately with your family or close friends. By all means look for support and answers. Just don’t hail yourself as an expert on a condition that you haven’t formally been diagnosed with yet.

My issue isn’t with genuine people who are autistic but can’t access formal diagnosis for financial or other reasons. My issue isn’t with children being let down by the system and left to struggle. I do understand the heartbreak of knowing your child or loved one needs support but being unable to access that. These all need addressed.

My issue is people that see autism as a ‘lifestyle choice’, a way of identifying because it fits with their own thoughts even if qualified professionals don’t agree and then using their self appointed status to publicly assert themselves as an expert on those formally diagnosed like my children.

My issue is people who say they are autistic yet in the next breathe say ‘but I probably wouldn’t get diagnosed’.

You can’t just decide yourself you are autistic. Your own opinion of yourself isn’t of more importance than trained professionals. It takes more than one person to agree on a diagnosis of autism for a reason.

Autism isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a complex lifelong condition that affects people forever.

Don’t make my children’s disability into a trendy way of life. Don’t say you have a disability publicly until you know for sure. I want to understand more about my children’s condition but I don’t need self confessed ‘know it all’s’ who aren’t even diagnosed themselves telling me how to support my children.

Six Years On: How Has Having A Diagnosis Of Autism Helped?

According to my Facebook memories it is exactly six years today since my daughter was diagnosed. She was 4 at the time and had been going through the process of diagnosis for over a year by the time her appointment came.

I recently heard a parent of a child suspected of being on the spectrum say they would never look to get their child diagnosed as they didn’t wish them to ‘be labelled.’

So how has having my daughter diagnosed helped?

Firstly it helped HER.

This is by far the most important point. My daughter is able to accept herself, understand herself and find her ‘tribe’ by having an identity and knowing that while she may be different she is far from alone. Her mental health was one of the biggest reasons I sought for a diagnosis. There is no shame is being autistic and I seek to promote her autism as part of her wonderful, unique and beautiful personality. It is who she is and she embraces that.

Secondly it helped HER EDUCATION.

By having a diagnosis her anxiety is recognised and supported. Her selective mutism is understood and not ignored. When she takes language as literal teachers can see she isn’t being cheeky or naughty but it is a genuine processing difference. Her social differences are understood and can be supported. Her strengths can be celebrated and her struggles supported. Sadly without a diagnosis some services could not be accessed and therefore support could not be put in place. Having a diagnosis brought patience, understanding and help that she would otherwise have missed out on.

Finally it helped ME.

I am still the same parent I was before but now my mental health has improved making me a stronger and happier person. We are too quick to forget how much parental mental health can affect families. When parents feel they are to blame for their child’s difficulties, anxieties and struggles they become defensive, depressed and isolated. Unfortunately parent blame is rife without a diagnosis as it is assumed the child is struggling through poor parenting. This is very rarely the case but it has destroyed so many families when diagnosis is delayed or withheld. I am more able to embrace my child, celebrate her and enable her because I understand her better and no longer carry the burden of guilt that I am to blame.

Naomi’s diagnosis report is very different to the child she is five years later. Her autism now manifests in very different ways but she is still autistic and both of us celebrate that fact daily.

Autism hasn’t stopped her succeeding, in fact in many ways it has helped her. She’s a rule-abider, people pleaser, unique and funny individual who accepts her own quirks and is happy being herself. She has struggled and even added ‘extra’ diagnosis over the years including an eating disorder but in the six years since her autism diagnosis she has won several awards, been on prime time TV, fought and won for a disabled swing in the local park for her brother and even written some incredible blogs about her own struggles.

Would I still want her diagnosis today if she wasn’t already? Absolutely!

Diagnosis isn’t anything to fear, it’s a key that helps you understand and access support. It doesn’t define your child it just enables them to be free to be exactly who they are.

If you are worried about your child’s development do seek advice from your GP, health visitor or child development team. It is in everyone’s interest to support and diagnose where necessary.

When You Still Get Flashbacks To Diagnosis Day

img_0034Some days stay in your memory for a long time; the day you gave birth, your wedding day perhaps, or even the day you graduated from high school or university. Unfortunately for me one of the days that is stuck in my mind is the day my precious son was diagnosed with autism. I am not alone in that either.

I put it to the back of my head most days. I rarely read the report I was sent as it always brings me to tears. Time passes. My child grows and develops, but still some days I look at him and I am right back there in that waiting room when he was at just three years old waiting on his final assessment for a life long diagnosis. I knew before they said the words. I thought my heart and my mind were prepared. It turns out I was wrong.

I was utterly devastated to hear my son had autism.

People tell me I should not have felt like that. I have been told that he would pick up on my feelings and feel rejected, that autism is just a different way of processing things and that my son is still the wonderful boy he was before that day.

I still cried.

I cried for the child I thought I would have. I cried out of fear and worry. I cried at the thought my son would struggle more than I ever wanted him to. I cried that my instincts as a mother had been right all along. I cried not for my son..I cried for me.

Autism was something that would stay with my son all his life. That can be difficult to comprehend when your child is not even at school yet.

When he was diagnosed he was only just walking. He had no language and little awareness of the world around him. He didn’t know his own name. I had no idea if or when any of that would change. He was diagnosed and then we went home. No-one offered me hope.

It was a dark day.

I could take you to that building even now despite four years and five months having passed since we were there. I still see the waiting room in my mind, I can smell the sterilised toys and the wiped down plastic seats, I can hear the voice calling my sons name. It was like time stood still that day.

As my beautiful boy sat in yet another waiting room last week, on yet another plastic chair, I had a moment of flashback to diagnosis day again. Except this time I didn’t cry at the memory, it was more of a shadow in the background.

It has truthfully taken me many years to get to that point. Some days I hate even being referred to as ‘am autism mum’ as that just makes me think back to that defining day when they mentioned autism for the first time.

My son has autism. I can say that now.

Today I say that with pride and a smile. My son is still non verbal, still not potty trained and still requires round the clock care. He has no idea of what happened the day he was diagnosed and probably never will. That day in 2012 never affected him in any way, but it defined me as a parent.

Wether you have fought for the day for a long time, or came away from the appointment in total shock, diagnosis day is huge.

I know I am not the only parent who has taken years to process my sons diagnosis. I am not the only person to have flashbacks to the day they told me my son had a life long condition with no cure.

So what helped me the most to stop those flashbacks and memories from taking over? Hearing this brown eyes boys laugh, watching him smile and realising that he may have autism but autism in no way defines him.

We are doing ok. We are a team. I help him and he helps me too. He is replacing the memory of that day with better memories every single day of his life. I hope I get flashbacks to his hugs for many years to come.

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The day I first heard the word Neurofibromatosis

 

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Diary entry December 2012:
I have just moved house with my newly turned 4 year old twins this week. We are living out of boxes and working our way through a garage full of our belongings and now we need to take time out today for yet another hospital appointment.

I am tired, stressed and hoping to simply receive the results of my son’s most recent 24 hour EEG. I already know he has classic autism and delayed development and last month marked a year since he took his first steps. He has yet to speak. He has yet to be potty trained. I have been reading. I know autism and epilepsy can be linked and I am praying if this is the cause of my baby’s seizures we can get this sorted today.

We arrive at the hospital. We wait.

Then they call his name.

I carry my baby boy into that doctor’s room kicking and screaming. There are two doctors in the room and I feel uneasy that something seems’off’ just looking at the thick notes the specialist has in front of her about my son. This is my baby; my longed for child. I ought to see a pile that thick of photos of him eating and playing and having fun, not a pile of medical reports about him. My son won’t stop screaming.

So we wait.

The doctor starts with asking about any updates. Have we noticed any further seizures? How is his general health? She then gently and carefully explains how my son’s EEG has come back ‘abnormal’ and that there was a lot of seizure activity noted. I don’t understand the technical reasons behind it but I do hear her saying ‘not epilepsy’. I start getting the children prepared to go home.

But she just sat there.

Somwe wait.

‘Are you aware your son has an abnormally large head?’

Well, yes I was very aware of this, especially compared to his twin sister.
‘Have you noticed any birth marks on him at all?

Well, yes doctor, but I would not worry about them as his dad has them too.
‘Would it be ok to have a look at them?’

I look at my son happily sitting on the bed pulling at the blue roll covering it for hygiene reasons and playing with it between his fingers. He would happily strip naked so he is never going to object to having his clothes taken off.

I sit there watching on as two medical professionals look in detail at my son’s body.

There is a way medical people look at each other when something isn’t right: a knowing look, a silent ‘are you thinking what I am thinking’ look, a look that says ‘will you tell them or me?’ We had seen that look just six months prior at the autism diagnosis. I never want to see ‘that’ look again. I am scared. I am curious. I am confused.

We wait.

And I am even more confused now the doctor isnasking if she can see my husbands birth marks too. He is 55. He can drive, live independently, has a job and no medical issues. It was just some marks and spots on his skin. What is the deal here? She asks my husband a few questions and then sits back down at her seat. My son returns to tearing up the blue roll and his sister sits on my knee quietly.

And then she says it:

‘Your son is presenting with autism, learning difficulties, seizures, a large head and, most importantly for us, over 8 prominent cafe au lait marks on his skin. Given the family history (what family history I wonder?), we both strongly suspect your son has a condition called Neurofibromatosis type 1. You will be referred to genetics and I will arrange for a nurse to come and do a home visit as soon as possible. Like your sons’s autism this is lifelong and there is no cure. Your son has simply inherited this from his father. I will see you again in six months time. Thank you for coming.’

At that we leave.

So that is it. At least she wrote it down for me.

From that day on we have waited. We wait to see if his health remains stable. We wait to see if any more tumours grow. We wait to see if his sight is affected.

On 3rd December 2012 I found out my child had neurofibromatosis type 1. All I can do now is wait. It is unpredictable and no-one can say how my son might be affected. All we can do is wait.