He was different from the day he was born.
My son Giovanni was a totally different baby in every way to my two other children, and only in hindsight can I see all the clues I missed.
Shortly after he took his first breath, my son made a strange, elongated sound that wasn’t a cry, already having trouble expressing how he was feeling.
A quiet toddler, quick to smile but slow to speak, preferring to sit in his toddler seat and stare, happy to be ignored, rarely crying out for attention.
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It was like a little worm in my tummy, wriggling around from day one.
Something’s not right.
But look, my beautiful baby boy. Sure he’s different from my first child, and every other baby in this hospital. His eyes aren’t open and won’t open for three weeks.
And yet he seems content. Unflappable. Ever so slightly less aware than most babies I’ve known.
Soon enough he was a toddler.
We played peek-a-boo. We were stopped at a light and I turned around to check on him and he was holding his teddy bear over his face and when he took it off I laughed and clapped and said “peek-a-boo”, so he did it again, and again and again, but his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes and he never laughed.
He seemed more curious at my reaction and realising this, I turned around and stopped playing. It was all just a little off.
Giovanni did laugh and cry, but not much.
He talked and walked, but late.
He played, but by himself.
And still it took me seven years to have him officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
I will never forget that day.
That morning I was angry. How could I have wasted so much money assessing my son for autism? He's fine. Everyone says he's fine.
What is wrong with me?
To the moment I opened that email report in May of 2015, in my car and scrolled through pages and pages of information until I saw those words.
Giovanni's mother reported concerns with Giovanni's ability to understand social situations...
Giovanni's teacher raised concerns about Giovanni's lack of focus and difficulty getting started on his classroom tasks...
Giovanni made fleeting eye-contact and said hello when meeting the psychologist for the first time...
Giovanni moved almost constantly during the entire assessment...
Giovanni asked if he could remove his shoes at the beginning of the assessment...
He kept a static body posture, looking down...
Based on the assessment of Giovanni, his behaviours and functioning are consistent with a diagnosis of 299.00 (F84.0) Autism Spectrum Disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-V).
I lay down for two weeks. Aside from basic care for the kids and myself I was in bed, pondering, thinking, planning, regrouping, crying because I didn't think I was capable of doing all the work he was going to need.
I felt lost, and nothing anyone said helped.
It was wrong. Of course it was wrong.
"Giovanni, look at Mummy. Should we play a game?"
"I'm tired," he'd say, looking down, swinging his legs, which I later found out through his occupational therapist was his way of avoiding playing games he couldn't understand.
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Sometimes he'd rock back and forth and I'd just hug him for as long as he'd let me, which wasn't long at all.
Giovanni today. He's nine. We're in a new school that brings out the best in him when it comes to his work, but still at lunchtime he prefers to walk slowly around a metal pole rather than play with the other ASD kids in his class.
To me he is perfect.
From the way he laughs at the same jokes over and over again, to the way he crushes up his pretzels before eating them to his habit of greeting our dog and interacting with her before acknowledging anyone else.
It's taken me two years but I have come to realise that there is nothing I would change about my little boy. He's whip smart and incredible.
And I think I've become a really good Autism Mum.
Autism has taught me so much. It's taught me about diversity. It's taught me not to make assumptions about people's behaviour.
It has taught me that conformity is hard, an unrealistic expectation placed on us that not all are willing or capable of achieving.
And it's allowed me to meet some of the most incredible children, so interesting, so locked away but desperate to come out, except they can't.
They and I settle on lots of little moments of connection.
Each of their parents has become an expert in the intricacies of these delicate and delightful children. You need to work for their attention, earn their trust. And when they give you their attention and show you their trust, it's like the sun coming out after days and days of rain. It truly is the best feeling in the world.
It's really important to me that everyone - including Giovanni - is aware and accepting of his diagnosis.
There is no shame.
Only a mother and son who are in this together. All of his challenges are shared by me, his dad, his brothers and sister and the trained professionals who know him better than I do.
The therapies we do aren't just his, they are ours.
I don't go out much anymore.
Giovanni doesn't have autism when he is home. There are no unfamiliar noises, uncomfortable social situations, strange foods and complicated processes.
It's just us, in our little world.
I think a lot about the future and what his life will be like when he is grown. Everything I am doing now is focused on then.
Secretly I'm thinking he will probably remain living at home. Learning to drive may be too hard, dealing with workplaces and people the same.
But that's my fear talking, the same protective instinct I feel towards all of my children but for Giovanni, it is a hundred-fold.
I don't mind that he needs me so much.
No longer overwhelmed and uncertain, I find myself truly fascinated by my son and figuring out how his brain works.
The hardest part is explaining him to others.
I invited lots of ASD kids to his birthday and watched neuro-typical family and friends stay away from them, uncertain about what to do or say in order to make contact.
There's definitely work to be done there.
It has taken me two years to learn how to construct and maintain a bridge between me and my son. As he gets older I find we're having to swing that bridge to others.
I just want him to be happy.
To me, autism is my son wanting certain things like friends and a job and a good life but not knowing how to get them. Even if he had them he would find it hard to keep them.
That's where I come in.
Maybe he'll need extra help forever. Maybe we'll never figure out a way to make modern life easy for him. Learning to drive is going to be hard for him.
But gosh I love him, and his every quirky and baffling thought, feeling and action.
My little boy.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, kicking off Autism Awareness Month. Ask all the questions, share all the information, comment on all the posts.