When the psychologist examining our 18-month-old son told me that she thought Miles had autism, my heart began to pound. I didn't know exactly what the word meant, but I knew it was bad. Wasn't autism some type of mental illness -- perhaps juvenile schizophrenia? Even worse, I vaguely remembered hearing that this disorder was caused by emotional trauma during childhood. In an instant, every illusion of safety in my world seemed to vanish.
Our pediatrician had referred us to the psychologist in August 2014 because Miles didn't seem to understand anything we said. He'd developed perfectly normally until he was 15 months old, but then he stopped saying the words he'd learned -- cow, cat, dance -- and started disappearing into himself. We figured his chronic ear infections were responsible for his silence, but within three months, he was truly in his own world.
Suddenly, our happy little boy hardly seemed to recognize us or his 3-year-old sister. Miles wouldn't make eye contact or even try to communicate by pointing or gesturing. His behavior became increasingly strange: He'd drag his head across the floor, walk on his toes (very common in autistic children), make odd gurgling sounds, and spend long periods of time repeating an action, such as opening and closing doors or filling and emptying a cup of sand in the sandbox. He often screamed inconsolably, refusing to be held or comforted. And he developed chronic diarrhea.
As I later learned, autism -- or autistic spectrum disorder, as doctors now call it -- is not a mental illness. It is a developmental disability thought to be caused by an anomaly in the brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 1 in 88 children are affected. But according to several recent studies, the incidence is rapidly rising: In Florida, for example, the number of autistic children has increased nearly 600 percent in the last ten years. Nevertheless, even though it is more common than Down syndrome, autism remains one of the least understood developmental disorders.