Daniel J Vance

Melanie Murphy of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, thought at first that her son Cole just had a speech delay. ‘He would say only a few words, and I couldn’t understand what they were,’ said Murphy, 36, in a telephone interview, of her then three-year-old son.

A friend’s child had been diagnosed with autism, so Melanie had Cole checked. The doctor immediately noticed that Cole had an inability to establish eye contact and in time the doctor diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder.

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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website defines autism as a wide spectrum of disorders characterized ‘by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive, stereotyped patterns of behavior.’ It affects about one in 500 Americans, reports NIMH.

‘It was heartbreaking to learn,’ said Murphy of the autism. ‘A rush of thoughts went through my head of the dreams I had set aside for my little boy. We didn’t want the doctors telling us right then about the future of a child with autism. We just asked them to tell us what to do next because knowing the future then would have been too much to handle.’

It turned out that Cole had high-functioning autism. Eventually he would establish eye contact with people, and today at age six he has begun learning math and reading. According to his mother, Cole is very creative and enjoys displaying his art. As for his autism, he struggles most in restraining aggression, and has difficulty transitioning out of situations in which he has experienced emotional extremes.

Then Melanie gave birth to another boy, Jack, who is now three.

‘We had an idea something was going on with Jack, too,’ said Murphy. ‘Even though we’d gone through autism with Cole, it was still a sting hearing the diagnosis again, which in Jack’s case was lower-functioning autism. I didn’t know how I was going to do this as a mother.’

She said that Jack is a happy child, who loves music and enjoys the piano.

Surprisingly, the Murphys’ most challenging hour of the week has been church, with all its abrupt noises and visual stimulation. John Murphy sits alongside Cole during Sunday school.

As for advice, Murphy said, ‘Try not to compare your child to others and don’t isolate yourself. Reach out to others as a mother and friend. You need an outlet.’

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