Let’s talk about the Boy.
When I was young, my mother cursed me. She said, “I hope you have a child who acts just like you.”
In 2000, I was working at a company called Human Code. I was doing Quality Assurance on edutainment titles like “Barbie Pet Rescue” and “Jesse’s Wild West Rodeo”.
And then my wife told me she was pregnant.
Now, this was a happy thing, of course. But our first child, Megan, had been such an easy child to work with and raise – intelligent, polite, sweet, not prone to temper tantrums – that I couldn’t help but wonder if this baby would be the same way.
And then It Got Worse. We fell on hard times and had to move in with Jamie’s mother. Now this was a mixed blessing – Margaret was a stickler for cleanliness, which my wife and I are not. But Megan was the light of Margaret’s life, and Margaret was delighted to have her around all the time.
And then…well, It Got Worse. After a year of mismanagement, Human Code folded. Now, not only did we have insufficient income, we had no income…and the baby was due in three months.
It was around this point that we found out it was a boy. (We had allowed ourselves to be surprised the first time.) I really wanted to name him Alexander, after Lloyd Alexander, one of my favorite young fantasy authors. But both his mother and his grandmother wanted David. So we compromised.
On June 12, 2001, David Alexander Salter was born.
It didn’t take long for use to realize that David was a very different baby from Megan. He was very fussy – indeed, unless he was asleep or actively being held, he would cry. He ate well and was of average weight so we weren’t that concerned. About him, at least. We were more concerned about our complete lack of income.
But David’s fussiness got worse over time, not better. My wife and I started sleeping in twelve-hour shifts so that one of us could be holding David practically at all times. It was the only way to get him to stop crying.
David is the reason I became a game developer. I’d always wanted to be one, but I’d been hanging around the fringes of it for years, and had several near-misses. The most recent one at the time was when I was told I’d be made a programmer at Human Code after I coded a design tool for a game in my spare time. This was, of course, right before the company folded.
So. QA money is not wife-and-two-kids money. I needed programmer money. And those lonely twelve-hour shifts were how I got it. I bought a book that basically went through the entire C and C++ languages, as well as basic Windows MFC programming. I read every single entry and wrote a little program demonstrating to myself that I understood the keyword or struct or function that entry was talking about. As I finished each entry, I marked it with a yellow highlighter (a trick I use to this day). I used a learning edition version of Visual C++ 6 that had come with a book I bought. And I did all this with my son on my knees as I patted him on the back.
To this day, he loves being patted on the back.
Then we got that situation resolved. A friend got me a job doing QA at a company called Multimedia Games, and I was able to quickly move into a programming position there.
This allowed us to move out, which was a good thing because David’s constant crying was driving Margaret crazy.
And it was about this time that we realized something might be wrong. David was a little late walking, but he was very late talking and getting potty trained. He also had several ticks, including one where he would ball up both fists and put them in front of his mouth.
The weird thing was, we knew that he could hear and we knew that he could vocalize because he loved to sing along with Disney movies. But there were some noises that he couldn’t stand – he’d run from the room with his hands over his ears when the THX logo would come up.
We finally took him to a specialist, who diagnosed him with a mild form of autism.
So the work began. We tried to engage him verbally at every opportunity, but he was very used to just pointing and dragging us over to show us what he wanted. Trying to make him “use his words” usually just resulted in him throwing a temper tantrum.
And he was still in pull-up diapers. When he’d take a poop he’d come find one of us and intimate that he needed a change. This got old fast, so Jamie and I decided it was time to get him potty trained. We waited until about an hour after dinner, then we took off his pull-up and put him on the training potty, and we kept him there. We tried to make it a positive experience, using very positive tones of voice but being firm – he couldn’t get up yet. He got more and more agitated. Then, finally, he said his first real sentence. He pointed at my wife and said, “YOU change the diaper!”
That was a real turning point for him. He had vocalized completely and while he didn’t potty that evening, he was going to the bathroom by himself within a week. David started to really improve after that. He was vocalizing better and it was getting easier to make him understand things.
Unfortunately one of the things he started to understand was that he liked going outside. Jamie and I started waking up to find him missing.
There is no fear like “I’ve lost my child” fear. We would find him at playgrounds, walking up and down stairs in the apartment complex – once he even followed Megan to school (it was close enough to walk). And he knew to always plan his escapes for when we were both asleep.
We locked the door; he figured out how to unlock it. We blocked the door; he would patiently pull until the blockage had moved enough to let him out. We installed a chain lock so high we could barely reach it; he pushed a table over to the door and stood on it to unlock the chain. Finally, I had to install a double-hung deadbolt so that he couldn’t get out without a key. And that was the end of his little excursions, though we did our best to take him outside as often as possible.
And then…school started. When we registered him, we tried to make them understand – he’s autistic, he can be unresponsive, you’re going to have to keep a close eye on him. “Yeah, yeah”, said the administrator. Then Jamie picked him up from his first day of school and was met by an absolutely exhausted young teacher. Fortunately, the school quickly put together a class just for him. They also, through observation, learned things about him that I didn’t know. For instance, I was so concerned about his fists-to-the-mouth tic that I never realized that it was his way of saying, “I’m happy. I’m enjoying this.”
The teachers were wonderful, and all the contact with the other children was so good for him. He was vocalizing by leaps and bounds, though there were still some social conventions (such as “David, that’s not yours”) that he had trouble with.
And when he discovered computers…well, that was about it. There is nothing he likes more than using a computer. I’ll come home and find Audacity open and a recording of him singing, or Paint.NET open and a nice drawing. And of course, being in the Salter house, he’s had massive exposure to video games. When our copy of Kingdom Hearts stopped working, he started going on YouTube and watching Let’s Plays of it. Same thing with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time – for some reason he just loves that game. In fact, one day I came home from work and found my browser open to this video.
Did he watch that entire 366-part playthrough? I wouldn’t put it past him.
He’s ten now. He’s in the fifth grade. He’s never had to be held back. And he gets better every day.
There was one concept that I’ve always felt he was unclear on, and that was “why”. He does who, what, when and where just fine. And then just a few days ago I had this exchange with him:
(David closes the window.)
Me: “David, why did you close the window?”
David: “Um…I don’t know.” (This is his standard line when he doesn’t know what to say.)
Me: “Yes, you do, David. Why did you close the window?”
David (after a moment’s thought): “Because I’m FREEZING.”
There we go. Good boy.
At this point I’m not that worried about David. He’s sweet, polite and endearing. He learns quickly and I’m almost positive he’ll continue to grow out of his social problems until there’s no real difference between him and anyone else.
And the more I think about it, the more I believe that I, too, was autistic when I was young. Of course, autism wasn’t as widely understood or diagnosed as it is now.
I used to hum and sing constantly, driving everyone in my school classes crazy. David does the same thing. Indeed, he sang before he could talk.
I had a crazy temper when I was young. As I got older it just went away. David would also throw temper tantrums when nothing would go his way, but he’s mostly grown out of it.
When I discovered computers, they completely took over my forebrain and have not let go. I once burst out crying when I was denied my computer time back when I was ten or so; David is the same way.
My mother’s curse worked; I have a son who is just like me.
And I love him more than anything.