Living with Autism: "Losing My Little Boy"
By Nancy Rones
Nothing could have prepared Nicole Kalkowski for the agony of seeing her
once-bubbly and affectionate son, Ryan, slowly slip away from her into the grip
of autism -- a complicated and hotly debated condition that takes a heavy toll
on every family it touches. Meet Nicole, her husband, and their children as
they struggle to cope with one of the nation's fastest-growing developmental
The statistics are shocking. One in 150 children living in the United States
has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And each year, the numbers tick upward
by 10 percent to 17 percent. Although the causes of autism are under debate,
the families affected by this perplexing disorder agree that it's a singularly
terrifying diagnosis. Major signs include problems with communication and
social interaction, from the child who doesn't smile at his mom to one who
stops speaking. Unusual and often repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back
and forth, are also strong indicators -- and agonizing for a parent to witness.
And once an ASD is suspected, there's no time to lose: Children with autism can
make the most progress before they turn 3, in what's commonly called the
"crucial window" of brain development. When autism invades a home, life
gets flipped on its head. This is a reality that Nicole Kalkowski faces every
day. After her toddler, Ryan, showed red flags for autism, she struggled to get
answers. In this multipart series, REDBOOK follows Nicole and her husband as
they race against time to help their son.
Sitting in the family room of her Las Vegas home, Nicole Kalkowski lights up
when she sees her 2-year-old, Ryan, come bopping down the stairs. Entering the
room, he begins walking in circles and gazing at his fingers, which he's
fluttering close to his face. As if on cue, Nicole leaps up, playfully tosses
Ryan onto the couch, and stretches and massages his legs while singing a
made-up song. For a moment, he looks up at her. Nicole is elated, showering him
with praise: "Good eye contact, Ryan!"
Ever since Ryan's development began to backslide in November 2006 -- when he
stopped saying the words he'd learned -- these seemingly small accomplishments,
or "mommy moments" as Nicole calls them, carry this 35-year-old
stay-at-home mom through the tough days, of which she's seen many in the past
year. For Nicole and her family, including her husband, Tim, 37, and daughters,
Ciera, 8, and Ella, 6, the long journey leading to Ryan's shocking diagnosis of
autism has been an emotional tug-of-war.