I was in the kitchen the other day when Philip ran through and asked if he could go to the neighbors' to play. "Sure," I said. He happily ran out the door and shouted over his shoulder, "I love you Mom!" I stopped what I was doing and looked directly at him. "What did you say?" "I said I love you Mom."
He's never said that to me before. Well, he has but I had to ask him to stop years ago because he would only say it when he was being blatantly manipulative. But this was different. It was a spontaneous expression of his pleasure at being allowed to be just like the other boys for just a moment. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Philip was 2 years and 4 months old when he came to us from Korea. Being an international adoption, it was a long and tedious process to get him here. He had been identified as a child with special needs from the get-go and we were told that besides a cleft lip and palate, he also had a host of other physical issues. He had been extremely delayed in his gross and fine motor function and there was some question about whether he would ever be able to run, play, or keep up with the crowd. He was completely non-verbal which concerned me. Three times before we agreed to bring him home, I asked (a complicated process in itself) if there were cognitive delays and three times I was told unequivocally no. So we were quite prepared to deal with a toddler who may have a life-time of physical challenges to handle. We were not prepared for the child who actually came off that plane.
Philip's walking was very shaky when he got here. He was escorted off the airplane in a stroller since he was not able to walk more than a couple of steps without stumbling over his own feet. He has very poor muscle tone and looked...well, floppy. That, in fact, is the way medical personnel refer to his tone - but this was the part we expected. He was not able to communicate with us at all. Besides the language barrier, he was non-verbal and had never spoken any words, neither Korean nor English. He would simply point and whine for anything that he wanted but he couldn't even seem to figure out what he wanted. He had never been fed anything but formula and he was malnourished.
As the weeks, months, years progressed we realized we had a much larger project on our hands than we had ever anticipated. Philip could not make eye contact with anybody, he had a lot of perseverative behaviors, he threw constant temper tantrums and he remained unable to communicate with the spoken word. He could not follow basic directions and he did not know how to relate to others - he seemed to be in a world of his own and deeply resented those of us who could not crawl into that world and anticipate his needs. To say he was not cognitively delayed was either a blatant lie or gross malpractice.
We have since come to understand a lot more about Philip. He has mild mental retardation, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (I hate this diagnosis - obviously he has pervasive developmental delays - the diagnosis tells us nothing - except that doctors don't like to call autism when they see it), mixed expressive-receptive language disorder (he has trouble understanding and expressing words), dyscalcula and possibly undiagnosed OCD, and ADD. I, for one, did not sign up for this and I believe God knew that had we heard the word Autism before we adopted Philip we probably would have cut the whole thing off before it started. But God wanted us to learn a few things.
The battle has been long, tedious and often marked with bitterness to help Philip get to a place where he is as "normalized" as possible. Now at age 11 he functions about at the level of a 5 or 6 year old yet, since he cannot interpret social cues, he thinks he is functioning on par with his peers. Ironically enough, he is too high functioning to realize how low functioning he is. He is basically a happy child, oblivious to the frustrations he causes to those around him (someday maybe I'll offer my review of The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night).
The key to what success we have gained in getting Philip to where he can relate to others a bit better has been diet, particularly yogurt, which his father faithfully makes for him and serves to him each day at breakfast. As long as Philip has his yogurt each morning he is able to make good eye contact, keep his perseverations and obsessive behaviors to a minimum and relate better to others in general. In fact, many are surprised to hear that he has autism since, as long as he follows his diet, he does not exhibit many of the classic signs. But we know. We know all too well because we relate to him moment by moment - he is never far from my side and I know his every quirk. I can predict his thoughts and anticipate his responses. His rigidity in thought and emotion are still classic markers of his many underlying problems. So when he turned to me and said just this once, "I love you Mom" I knew I had to grab a hold of those words, the look on his face, the whole wonderfulness of it all and hide it away in my heart. It may be many more years before I hear it again.