Our little girl will be going to kindergarten next year. For most parents this is a significant event in their family's history. In our household it is even more momentous: Two years ago, our daughter was diagnosed as autistic.
One year ago, kindergarten still seemed a virtually unachievable goal. Our daughter barely spoke even then, and she used a mumbled speech portrayed mostly by single words and a few carefully selected phrases. She looked at our faces only rarely, a common enough trait in autistic children, but very frustrating from the standpoint of trying to teach or interact in any meaningful way.
When the topic of kindergarten came up in preschool conferences as recently as last autumn the conversation did not last long. At that time, we noted a steady increase in abilities and aptitudes, but we were months away from having to make a decision and our daughter was still performing far below kindergarten level.
The kindergarten decision came this month. Oddly enough, our daughter made the decision for us through a few of her actions on the very day of her latest parent teacher conference.
For months I have been feeding my daughter a script almost every time she wanted something, a sentence that reads like: "May I have some ____ (fill in the blank), please?" Until recently I always had to prompt her through at least some of the sentence, but on conference day she surprised me.
I was playing the piano in our living room that morning when I heard my daughter's whining cry for milk coming from the kitchen. I called out to her, saying she would have to come and tell me what she wanted before I'd get it for her. Without another whimper she came into the living room and in a very polite voice asked: "Daddy, may I have some milk please?"
In the last few weeks, it has become apparent that our daughter also knows the alphabet and numbers. She is not only recognizing them in print but also capable of drawing them.
She demonstrated the connection between letters and words recently, pointing at a stop sign and saying, "Stop! S.T.O.P." Getting into the car on the way to school she looked at the button on her car seat, then said, "P.U.S.H. Daddy, what's that spell?"
At the school conference I offered an accounting of my daughter's new skills. I also learned that she was doing new things at school, even offering up imaginative play compelling enough to entice her schoolmates to join in the fun. When the preschool teacher mentioned kindergarten this time around we all agreed that she would be ready.
In the early days of my daughter's autism there was a fear in my heart. The fear was that my children might need more time to get ready for the big wide world than we could give them, that my wife and I would either be caring and providing for our adult children well into our twilight years, or worse yet, that we might not live long enough to see our children safely through to independence.
As older parents, my wife and I keep a steady gaze on the window of time between our children's coming into their own and the end of our working life. When our children were conceived we felt the window was narrow but acceptable. When autism reared its head it seemed that the window had slammed shut.
But daylight is showing through that window now. Our kids are growing and learning. The autistic toddler I knew has forgotten her aversion to looking at faces. She talks, and she asks questions.
Our little girl is going to Kindergarten. She's going to enter it at the same time as her peers. It even appears that she'll be on an academic par with her classmates at the starting gate.
There will be challenges ahead, and I am certain there will be more dark days and uncertainty in store for our daughter, just like there are for the rest of us. Life is seemingly difficult enough without complications like autism, but at least we know something of what she's up against, and we can help her get through it.
Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.