|Palmer: our blue boy|
This is Palmer. He's almost seven. He's a genius (That's not a bragging mom speaking, he's actually a genius. His IQ is currently 128). He's in first grade and LOVES school. He also loves to read, write math problems everywhere, investigate how things work, and share details of all kinds of random facts. He loves to run as fast as possible, ride his scooter, play video games, and he's extremely affectionate. 99% of the time, he's a "normal" kid. But then someone disobeys a rule or doesn't follow the right order or disrupts his routine and he's unglued. He fixates on ideas, activities, and rules to the point of exhaustion. He's a literal, linear thinker. He struggles to relate to other kids sometimes, especially if they're being sarcastic or using idioms. He loves playing with other kids but doesn't always know how to insert himself into a group or a social situation. He loves watching and playing sports but struggles if someone doesn't follow the rules (he'd make a great NBA ref, right?). If you haven't figured it out, Palmer has Asperger's Syndrome.
Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is one of the many diagnoses on the Autism Spectrum. The evidence of many ASD "Symptoms" is so hard to pinpoint because it manifests so differently in every kid. But I'll tell you about our journey thus far with this amazing kid.
When Palmer was a baby, he was extremely easy. He ate well, slept well, was happy, loved baby food, books, and balls. If he was every fussy, you could turn on a sports game and he'd watch the whole game without moving. He would sit and look at books for hours on end. Initially, I patted myself on the back for effectively using my English teacher skills to teach my son to love words, letters and reading. He loved puzzles and would put together the alphabet puzzles repeatedly. He signed over 50 words and talked pretty normally. He was a late walker (16 months), but I assumed that was because he was so chubby.
As Palmer moved into the toddler stage, I started noticing a few things. When he was excited, he would flap his hands. I thought it was because he trying to sign "excited", which looks a lot like hand flapping. But he kept doing it. And he would jump excessively instead of sharing any emotions. If he was frustrated, he jumped. If he was happy, he jumped. If he was angry, he jumped. Then he taught himself how to read. I'm not kidding. It had nothing to do with me, though I watched the progression in awe of his mental abilities. At first, he just knew sight words (run, cat, dog, mom, dad, me, hi), but at two years old, he started learning how to rhyme words and replace letters (run, bun sun, fun, etc.). I will never forget going to TJ Maxx one day when Palmer was two. I had a newborn Portia in the baby bjorn and I was trying to shop for some kids clothes. Palmer was sitting in the cart, reading a book. I was looking for the kids clothes and mumbled to myself, "Where are the boys' clothes?" Palmer looked up, pointed to the sign, and said, "Boys!" Sure enough, he was right. I thought it was a fluke until he pointed to another sign and said, "Toys!" He was right again.
Because he seemed to love word and number games, as he got a little older, I would play more and more advanced games with him, just to see what he could handle. He taught himself to write and we had several incidents where he practiced his letters on the wall with crayons. He was so happy when he was writing, reading, and doing math, I thought nothing of it.
But I started noticing some things. I'd ask him to clean up the Uno cards and I'd come back to find he'd lined them up by color in numerical order. He'd play with cars and line them up in rows by color and shape. He wouldn't play with blocks unless they were all the same shape and color. He would try to take apart his cars to find out how they worked. He would play one game for hours on end and didn't mind playing by himself. He would asosciate a game with a person and ask for that game every time he saw that person (i.e., every time he saw my dad, he'd ask to go bowling because Papa bought him a small bowling set one time).
I didn't think too much of any of these things, other than he was such a little smarty pants (another pat on the back for mom). But then Portia got a little older and started wanting to play with Palmer and interact with other kids at the park and church. I noticed that Portia, at 13 months, would walk up to another child at the park, look them in the eye, and say "HI!" and they'd run off playing together. She was (and is) my verbal child, so I kept telling myself not to compare. But Palmer never acknowledged that he had to interact with other kids. He did what they call parallel play. He'd follow a group of kids at the park, thinking he was interacting, but they didn't think he was participating. I saw at preschool that he would be playing with a puzzle next to another kid who was doing another puzzle. He didn't speak to the other kid, but if I asked what he was doing, he'd say, "I'm playing with ______" (naming the kid). He wouldn't look you in the eye and would get frustrated if you didn't know what he was thinking or feeling, despite the fact that he never expressed those feelings.
He started gagging on food, especially things with rougher textures like meat and chips. He would make himself throw up if we tried to get him to eat something he didn't like. He wanted the same meals every day (that's not that abnormal for a preschooler, but he would throw up if he didn't have certain foods).
I also noticed that Palmer had a hard time with some motor skills things. Portia could easily hop on one foot, skip, and do jumping jacks. Palmer couldn't zip a zipper, cut with scissors, skip or do jumping jacks. He refused to ride a bike (still does).
So, this was Palmer and I was frustrated but feeling like I didn't know if I was just paranoid and hypersensitive or if something was wrong. But then my mom mentioned a couple concerns she had. This was followed by some concerns mentioned by my mother-in-law. The last straw, for me, was when Palmer's preschool teacher mentioned that she was concerned with some behaviors and issues he was having in school. She recommended we have him evaluated by the child development specialists and school psychologist. After nights of worrying and praying and counseling with Ronell, we decided it wouldn't hurt to know if Palmer was progressing normally and was just a quirky little smart kid or if there was something more "serious". When the diagnosis came back as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), I was okay because they repeatedly told us that his symptoms were minimal and he required minimal amounts of therapy. What they failed to mention, and I've since learned, is that SPD is often a diagnosis they give many kids who haven't quite developed in full-scale autism or Asperger's. Because his symptoms weren't over the top and he was still thriving in the school settings, they made it sound like six months of therapy and he'd be fine.
So off to the Occupational Therapist we went. And he did very well. He loved his therapist and did everything that was asked of him. Because his symptoms were so minimal, there wasn't much to "fix", other than the social stuff. But I also learned that it's very common for kids with autism spectrum disorders to have weak core strength, and they usually need some extra help strengthening their core and they struggle with some of the things that require developed core srength (i.e., bike riding). So Palmer had his therapy, did well, and then we moved to Arkansas and got ready for Palmer to start all-day kindergarten.
Needless to say, he LOVED school from day one. He loved the routine, the kids, everything. But I was worried about whether he'd be fine socially and whether he'd be academically challenged. He walked into kindergarten reading on a first grade reading level (actually 1.4, based on his mommy's testing....I'm such a nerd. I tested him just to get my own "baseline"). He wasn't really challenged at all academically and he had a few incidents where he missed some social cues and either the kids or the teacher didn't know how to handle it. But he survived and still loved school. So, I let it go.
Then first grade came along and Mrs. P was his teacher. I literally thank Heavenly Father several times a week for this woman. At the beginning of the year, Palmer seemed to be fine but I started noticing more and more problems with his ability to cope in social situations and his inability to explain or express his frustrations.
Mrs. P asked her students' parents to write her a letter with some details about our students. There were several questions about home life, family, talents, favorites, etc. I'll never forget the last question she asked us to write about. "Are there any special concerns regarding your child that I should be aware of?" I spent days agonizing whether I should talk to her about Palmer's social "stuff". I didn't want her to have a pre-conceived expectation (or lack of expectations) of him. But, I felt prompted to share some of his preschool experiences and some of my concerns about how kindergarten had gone. She called me the day after she read the letter and said she wanted to meet with us. She recommended that we should have him tested by the school. Her main concern was that, while his social deficits weren't affecting academics now, they would start to, as academics became more and more socially oriented. She also expressed her desire to know how to challenge Palmer without frustrating him and that she wanted to know if there was anything between home and school that we could work together to do for him. And then she said something I will always remember. She said, "Palmer is an amazing and incredible boy. I've only known him for a few weeks but I realize he has the potential to do and be anything he wants to be. He is kind and gentle and so good-hearted. I just want to make sure we put him on the path to be successful and to accomplish any goal he wants to accomplish". So,again, I went home and Ronell and I fasted and prayed about how to help this amazing and aggravating child. In the end, we decided we'd rather know and help him than let it go.
So, here we are, after six months of collecting data, completing family history surveys, and evaluations. Palmer has Asperger's Syndrome and goes to therapy twice a week during his school day. His therapy is primarily social thinking therapy, teaching him to become a more flexible thinker. I've learned a lot in the last two years. I've come to two conclusions through this process; first, that there is no "cure" for autism spectrum disorders and social deficits, only tools, skills, and resources to help our children adapt, function and thrive. Second, I've learned that Palmer will be just fine and will be able to accomplish anything he decides to do. This journey will not be without bumps and bruises and some more difficult moments. But I believe in Palmer and know that, while we may always have to do things a little differently, he is capable of great things.
I'm grateful for all that I've learned thus far in our journey with Palmer. I am constantly in awe (when I'm not frustrated with him!) of the things he is capable of and the joy with which he lives life. I'm grateful the Lord gave me the preparation of being in the education world, so I know how to navigate that world to benefit Palmer. I'm grateful for family and their love and support. I still have lots of worries about Palmer getting older and my momma bear instincts kick in when I see him struggle. But I'm learning that this aspect of Palmer is a small part of him. I'm trying to learn from him how to glean all I can from everything and everyone around me and let the rest go.
A few days ago, I came across Enoch's story in the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 6:31). The thought occurred to me that the Lord didn't take away Enoch's disability ("Slow of Speech"), but He used that weakness to bring people to the Lord. Because of Enoch's faith, the Lord was able to use him to do great works. I am certain that the Lord has a great work for Palmer to do, and I know that if we can give him the tools he needs, he will do amazing things.