What Autism Does to a Mother
As the vigil ends, the well-wishers hug Nicole and her daughters. Ciera's
eyes well up as she whispers to her mom, "Ryan is really special."
"My days were filled with silence"
Given all the anxiety and heartbreak they had endured in the past year since
Ryan's development regressed, the Kalkowskis — Nicole in particular — were in
sore need of this kind of support. Thanks to Ryan's erratic behavior and
demanding therapy schedule, which would devour large chunks of her time every
day, as well as her own deep sadness and reluctance to lean on others, Nicole
was leading an increasingly and painfully isolated existence.
Typically, Nicole's social life would flourish in September when her girls
returned to school. Her calendar was always packed with playdates, volunteer
work, and plans to meet other moms for coffee. But Ryan's fierce tantrums in
public places — even just on quick errands to Target — crushed any return to
normalcy. Before summer break, she chatted happily with other moms at school
drop-off. Now, she preferred to be invisible on school grounds.
"Friends didn't know how to react," says Nicole. "In passing, I
was constantly asked, 'How are you doing?' I dreaded this question. 'Fine,' was
a lie, and I needed more than 10 seconds to really answer. And I didn't want to
break down in front of the girls anyway. So I'd walk into school with big, dark
sunglasses on and leave quickly to avoid conversation. In the car, the tears
Gone, too, was the weekly playgroup Nicole hosted at her house for church
friends and their kids. Like many children with autism, Ryan has heightened
sensitivities to strangers as well as to noisy environments; these factors
either set off screaming and crying fits or caused him to hide. Nicole knew
that the playgroup would be uncomfortable, possibly intolerable, for her son.
"I didn't want people looking at Ryan acting up and thinking, Wow, that's
really awful," she says. "I was protective of my son and didn't want
him to be judged." Sometimes when visitors came over, Ryan retreated to his
parents' bedroom upstairs, pulling Nicole with him. "I'd have a family over
for a barbecue and instead of socializing, I hid in my bedroom with Ryan,"
says Nicole. "If I tried to leave the room, he'd get mad and push me back