Daniel J Vance

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, claims NIMH.

Angie Putnam of Mitchell, South Dakota, early on knew something wasn’t right with her son Matt. ‘At first, he had trouble hearing,’ Putnam said in a telephone interview. ‘Doctors learned he had fluid build-up in his ears. So when 2 he had his tonsils and adenoids taken out and tubes put in his ears. That made a difference in his hearing and talking, but even after that, we could tell he was behind in development.’

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For instance, Matt wasn’t talking nearly as much as other kids. It wasn’t until he was 5 when a ‘special needs’ teacher mentioned autism.

‘That summer we learned he had it after taking him in for an evaluation,’ she said. ‘When first getting the diagnosis, we asked the doctors if he had Asperger’s syndrome. They said since he had had a speech delay they wouldn’t classify it as that. At the time, we questioned that diagnosis because the reason he hadn’t been talking early on was because of the fluid build-up in his ears.’

Asperger’s syndrome is a milder type of autism. Despite her suspicions, Putnam has never had Matt re-diagnosed, in essence saying that a new label on her son wouldn’t change the way she or his teachers interact with him.

Today, Matt is 12. ‘Occasionally, when something doesn’t go his way, he has meltdowns,’ said Putnam. ‘Or when he doesn’t understand something he gets upset. Sometimes he’ll throw something, hit or kick. Sometimes he gets upset and cries. Then it’s a matter of calming him down.’

Like most children with Asperger’s syndrome, Matt has an exceptional memory. He excels in spelling and math, and enjoys repeating movie and cartoon lines. At school he’s mainstreamed for social studies and science, and is in special education language arts.

‘Kids seem to understand better than adults his autism,’ she said. ‘They seem more accepting and forgiving.’

Unlike most autistic children, Matt at times can be affectionate and verbal. And he has a great sense of humor. His mother said they give him regular household chores and treat him the same as his older sister.

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