The Challenges of Raising a Child With Autism
Raising an autistic child is a long journey, but parents have many options and places to turn for help.
Looking back, Cori Ayala understands that the signs made sense. Before her
son Evan was diagnosed with autism at age 3, he had behaved
differently from his older brother, Alex. Evan was happy and affectionate,
Ayala says. But "he developed pretty rigid routines that had to be adhered
to or he would just totally fall apart."
When she walked Alex to his school in Sacramento, Calif., Evan insisted that
they take the exact same route and use the same entry to school every day. When
he slept, his parents had to lay his blanket the exact same way, with the same
edge touching his upper body. By age 2, Evan spoke no words -- not even
"Mama" or "Dada."
When Evan was diagnosed with autism, Ayala says, "It was one of the
worst days of my life. I was paralyzed. I was numb. I wanted to retreat to my
little house and just close down. I was absolutely devastated and so was my
"I was so afraid of that word 'autism' because I thought of Rain
Man and other people with autistic kids who were nonverbal and mentally
retarded. I had no idea what Evan was going to be like."
Mary Beth Steinfeld, MD, the developmental pediatrician who diagnosed Evan,
understood those fears.
"Mary Beth said to me, 'Don't think about the word 'autism' if it scares
you," Ayala recalls. "She said, 'Just think about your son and what
strengths he has and where he needs help. Focus on him because he doesn't scare
And with those words of wisdom, Ayala -- like so many other parents -- began
the demanding journey to help a child with autism grow to full potential.
Coping With an Autism Diagnosis
Robert A. Naseef, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia who wrote
the book, Special Children, Challenged Parents. He is also the father of
a grown son with autism. Naseef has counseled many parents who have reacted to
an autism diagnosis with
heartbreak and anxiety, as well as anger and a
sense that life has been unfair. He encourages the honest emotions, he says.
"You don't have to kid yourself about how hard it is."
But "all the while, love makes giving up unthinkable," Naseef says.
"The good thing about getting the diagnosis is that then you get a
direction in what will help your child. Usually, when kids get the right help
and start making progress, their parent's mood brightens and you have some hope
Early intervention is key, experts say. "Parents have to get going right
away because time is of the essence. You need to get focused on what your
mission is," says Nancy D. Wiseman, founder and president of First Signs
Inc., a nonprofit organization that educates parents and professionals about
early signs and treatment of autism.