The gifts, challenges of children later in life

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I am a very lucky man, lucky because of the tremendous opportunity of staying at home with my young children.

Not long ago I had a career - I've pursued several in my life so far - but I feel that the most important thing I can be doing at this time is to see to the upbringing and well-being of my kids. I feel especially lucky because this chance comes at a time in my life when I have the maturity and patience to deal with all of the unexpected things that come along with it.

My wife and I wanted children in our marriage, despite the fact we were both over 40 when we met. We knew that children might not be in the picture for us, but as luck would have it, we never had to seriously consider fertility treatments or adoption.

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Our daughter was born 10 months after the wedding. Our son was born less than two years later.

One of the reasons why people who want children should have them before they turn 40 is that time is not kind to our biological clocks, for men as well as for women. My wife and I read many statistics that spoke of things like chromosomal abnormalities, birth defects and other similarly scary issues. We knew the risks increase exponentially with age.

Accordingly, both of our pregnancies included amniocentesis procedures, where amniotic fluid is extracted from the womb and analyzed for chromosomal abnormalities. Fortunately, no abnormalities were discovered.

But all was not well. We began to suspect that our daughter was challenged early on. She began to speak somewhere around eight months, but her vocabulary did not expand as it would for most typical children. Instead, new words that began as clear and understandable would become more slurred and indistinguishable over a period of days or weeks, and then those words would disappear altogether from her vocabulary, in some cases not to reappear until many months later.

We knew she could hear even the slightest sounds, as evidenced by her immediate appearance from the far corners of the house when the distinct "click" of the DVD player was heard.

Even so, we could speak her name or yell it without getting a response. We could get directly in front of her face, or wave our arms frantically about in her field of view, and still get no result.

We began to suspect autism by our daughter's second birthday. The official diagnosis came a little more than a year later.

I could launch into a discussion about autism and its causes, but the bottom line is that there is much uncertainty as to what makes one child autistic and another normal, and the cause is beside the point. The point is that our daughter is autistic, and how she got there is not nearly as important as how she is going to learn to live with her autism, and how we are learning to assist her.

Our daughter is mildly autistic, which means that sometimes it hardly seems like she is autistic at all, while at other times it isn't as difficult to tell.

Many of her symptoms have diminished considerably in the past year, and her ability to interact effectively with her brother and her peers at preschool is thrilling. Her increasing ability to interact with her parents is even more thrilling. Like most children with autism, she is really a very bright child.

My daughter lives in the present. She knows what she's doing and is pretty good about getting help from anybody close enough to ask. She's well-mannered too, often volunteering words and phrases such as "please," "thank you" and "you're welcome" when her wants are met. But she won't say how her day is going, or what she did yesterday, or what she wants to do tomorrow. Those communication skills are still beyond her.

With each passing week, however, we see that she is better able to express herself. And some day, when I ask "how was school today?" she'll give me an answer.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home dad who lives in Juneau.

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