A doctor said my son had 'no hope.' At 30, he doesn’t let autism hold him back
Recently a momentous, fabulous, electrifying thing happened.
My son, my wife and I got into the car, and she asked him, as she always does, where he would like to go.
“No idea,” he said.
No idea!? Ellen and I sat up in our seats. Our spirits rose like party balloons. No idea! We burst out laughing, and Walker smiled like a stand-up comedian who had just landed a joke.
Walker is not a 1-year-old starting to put words together. He’s a handsome, 30-year-old, 6-foot-3 man with severe autism. He speaks, a little. He converses not at all. He can barely tell people his thoughts. We had only very rarely heard a casual, flip response like this.
Normally our conversations are distilled imitations of conversations. Where do you want to go? “The mall.” What do you want to eat? “Pizza.” What do you want to do? “Zoo train walk” (his code for a long trek through the city). This little remark of his was, as far as we were concerned, Shakespearean. It seemed to reflect the lively, knowing, humorous look he has had in his eyes his whole life.
One of the many odd things about this scene was the reflexive joy that shot through his parents. Ellen and I are 66 and 67, respectively. Walker is well past the age of “development” as the elementary education world sees it. At his age, he is locked into the category of “low-functioning autism.” He is long past the cutting-edge, hopeful world of possible cures celebrated on TV and in the media. He has aged out of not only the education system but also plausible medical solutions to his condition.
Yet we reacted like young parents looking for a break in their toddler’s dire autism diagnosis. In fact, our reaction to small, even infinitesimal, signs of “breakthroughs” has remained the same all his life, despite what could be considered our stunning lack of success. He now lives in a group home, and we pick him up on weekends.
When Walker was born, autism was considered beyond the reach of medical science. In the late 1980s, when he was 3, a pediatric neurologist pronounced, after checking him out for 10 minutes, “I hold out no hope for this child.” He was a judge issuing life without parole. Story over. As Walker grew, however, the experts began to believe that with “early intervention,” a child could escape autism.
But salvation by early intervention implies doom without it. Someone like our son, who did not benefit from the wonderful methods we now know, is presumed by many to be beyond help. Conventional wisdom ruled out his successful growth as a child; today it rules out his growth as an adult.
But Walker himself clearly doesn’t buy this. He’s pursuing growth like a champ.