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Footloose in ‘Holland’

by Esther Sanders

Sue stared intently from across the sandbox and asked, “Have you ever heard of Asperger’s Syndrome?”

We had been getting together for weekly play dates with our same-age boys for about a year, and it was not the first time this well-educated and discerning expat friend had suggested my son might be handicapped.

Soon afterward, as I read the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s on the Internet, I suddenly felt very tired, as though I were standing at the beginning of a very long road, one that I had no choice but to follow. For here was the story of my son’s life, complete in every major and minor detail, told as though the authors had known him personally.

Further reading revealed the existence of an “autistic spectrum” that includes disorders ranging from the severe “classic” type depicted in the movie “Rain Man” to mild forms such as Asperger’s. The suspicion of autism had occurred to me very briefly when my son was a baby as I wondered why he almost never made eye contact. Now, armed with my new knowledge, it made sense. I also learned that people on all parts of the spectrum often have an area of special talent. This explained my child’s precocious flair for language.

Our son was 3 then; my own concern about his development had been mounting for at least a year. As it turned out, my husband had silently harbored the same fears. So there we all were, on the same page. It was time for a professional assessment, and my first reaction was, frankly, xenophobic. Even after 15 years in Japan, I wondered whether it was safe to trust any advice given in this so-very-different land of edible flowers and ornamental cabbages.

A year later, I am now much more relaxed. Our son has been evaluated by both American and Japanese professionals, with no notable differences in their findings or recommendations. Resources are not as plentiful here, but they do exist — and with the Internet, there is always a place to turn for more help.

My anxiety over the Japanese tendency toward aloofness has also receded, thanks to successful efforts at building relationships that go beyond the superficial. Against the advice of several non-Japanese friends, I approached my son’s kindergarten teacher early on about his suspected condition. She nodded in sympathetic agreement and encouraged me to share the news with the other mothers as well. They, too, responded warmly. My openness brought me sweet relief after agonizing months of having stood mute while others explained away my child’s sometimes jarring behavior with polite but bogus excuses. (“It’s the language barrier,” or “Boys will be boys.”)

I wish I could confidently advise other parents as to whether following our example of candid disclosure would be prudent or foolish. Our kindergarten, however, is a tiny, unorthodox, family-run school, so it may well be an exception. On the other hand, perhaps the horror stories that I’ve heard about teachers in denial are becoming a thing of the past.

I can say, however, that whichever course you decide to take, early awareness is crucial. Far more important than the diagnostic label is remedial intervention in the form of professional help (in our case, so far, speech and occupational therapy) and day-to-day modifications made by parents and teachers to respond to a child’s special, specific needs. The benefits of acting sooner rather than later, in my view, far outweigh the risk of overreacting to something that might go away with time.

Our son is slowly, by the tiniest of increments, learning to pedal a tricycle, to play catch, to draw simple faces, to socialize appropriately. The joy and astonishment that come with the unfolding of each small miracle are all the more profound, knowing as we do how long and hard he has worked to reach these milestones. He is lucky, in that his language abilities will eventually help make it possible for him to pursue formal education at the highest levels if he so chooses.

In Emily Perl Kingsley’s essay “Welcome to Holland,” she describes the experience of becoming a parent and then discovering that one’s child is disabled. The reader is asked to imagine embarking on a dream vacation to Italy, only to find that the plane has touched down in Holland, and that there is no turning back. After an initial period of shock, the traveler begins to find value in the tulips, the windmills and so on.

I would never presume to decide what path my child should choose as an adult. Still, many people with Asperger’s Syndrome seem to gravitate toward academia, and I sometimes imagine my son heading in this direction, perhaps into literature or linguistics. After all, how many 2-year-olds treat their parents, as ours did, to original rhyming verse in the style of Dr. Seuss? (“Would you, could you, in an elevator? Would you, could you, in an escalator?”)

It amuses me to picture him someday, walking across a college campus, patches at his elbows and coffee stains on his lapels, lost in thought, the proverbial absent-minded professor. For the moment, though, he is only 4, and his parents are still busily learning Dutch.