May 2015 Articles

Bryn Mawr Woman: The Way Home from the Neurologist’s Office

By Rebecca Martin ’94

Somehow, it still came as a surprise. Even though on the way to see the neurologist, my five-year-old daughter, Maeve, refused to enter the bathroom at the rest stop because she saw the hand dryer and feared the assault on her ears, even though we had already done two years of speech therapy to draw Maeve into conversation with her two brothers and peers, even given the consultation with our state’s early childhood development program, and despite our pediatrician having used the term “spectrum-ish” to describe some of the behaviors Maeve’s teachers had observed in her — as we drove back north along the Hudson River from the appointment at Columbia, where the neurologist had referred Maeve for an autism evaluation, I was in shock.

Listening to Maeve repeating the lines of Fancy Nancy from memory in the backseat, I thought it had seemed like too short of an examination for the doctor to know anything. “You’re referring us to the Autism Center,” I half-asked, half-said. The doctor looked at me as if I had missed what had played out before my eyes: the interview when my daughter had not responded to half of the questions and was difficult to understand when she did. “Yes, from the way she behaved here and from what you described, Yes.” I looked at Maeve, with her full peachy cheeks and dreamy blue eyes and thought she deserved a defense. But she is so joyful … so affectionate; she turns my face to hers, pins our noses together, looks me in the eyes so that I can feel her lashes brush my own and kisses me … But I had not managed to say anything.

In the car, I supposed that I had been hoping for the possibility of some other diagnosis—something that I had never heard of that would slide off my tongue at dinner parties or when I was introducing Maeve to new people. Then again, I had a niece with epilepsy, a kind that was treatable and that might fade with puberty. Maeve seemed to check out at times; could it be that? Surely, that would have been better. Just not autism, which I could only say with a gulp at the end, eyes watering.

I caught myself tearing up at the thought as we crossed onto the wooded part of the Hutchinson River Parkway. Maeve was now singing to herself, as I wondered how I could have missed it—or just refused to admit that this was what was going on with my daughter. Despite all of the people I had consulted, the reading I had done, the couple of children I knew on the autism spectrum, had I missed it? Then I remembered that someone whom Maeve and I had never met had seen it. An essay of mine had been published on a parenting blog six months earlier. It described Maeve’s borrowing of phrases from books and television; how it was funny but also concerning the way she would be at the pool in summer and ask passersby to have a “slice of fruitcake on the house,” an invitation out of Holly Hobbie’s Christmas. The blog allowed readers to comment and one poster asked: “How is the author dealing with the early signs of ASD?” Before I could respond, I had to Google “ASD.” I did not even know the acronym for autism spectrum disorder. Whoa, whoa, whoa! I had thought. How dare this person suggest that? But now I considered the possibility that the stranger was right.

I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and recalled another denial I had hurled at a teacher who had screened Maeve for kindergarten and suggested an evaluation: “But she doesn’t have any repetitive behaviors!” Then I could see Maeve in my mind’s eye running laps of the length of our house, humming the same two notes. I leaned forward, wanting to get home. All we had was the referral, but as I thought back on the last few years, I had to allow that she could be diagnosed.

As we pulled into our driveway, the shock had subsided a little. Nothing would be certain for months, but my understanding of my life had already begun to change. I tried a new sentence in my head, “My daughter has autism.” Could saying that ever feel normal? Then, I heard the door of our minivan slide open and I saw the usual glossy brown head bounce up the front steps of our house.

Rebecca Martin ’94 is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in The New York Times’ Motherlode; Brain, Child Magazine; and, among other publications.

Bryn Mawr’s Child Study Institute, a multidisciplinary clinic serving children, adolescents, college students, adults, and families, has compiled a list of useful websites to provide information on early childhood development, Asperger’s syndrome, and autism.

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Comments on “Bryn Mawr Woman: The Way Home from the Neurologist’s Office”

  1. Rebecca, I would love to connect. Both of my daughters were diagnosed with autism, the oldest in 2010 a few months before her 3rd birthday, and her little sister was diagnosed about a year and a half later. My oldest also has a rare white blood cell disorder and a few other medical complications that made early detection difficult. I’m a BMC alum from ’98. If you want to chat with another Mawrter who has been through some similar situations, I’d love to. Thanks.