Early intervention, any autism research will say, is key. It can even feel at times as if it’s not just important, but essential. Miss those early years, it’s easy to feel, or abandon all hope.
I know no magic flip is thrown once the birthday candles are blown out. But still, it’s hard to ignore conventional wisdom that holds that the brain is malleable until about age 5, and then the cement starts to harden. Recovery no longer becomes an option.
The fear of that magic switch, that hardening cement, has been haunting me for the past year or so, ever since we began our biomedical approach with Logan. He was already almost 4 when we took him off gluten, and the feeling that we were racing against time was always strong in my mind.
And now the timer’s up.
Has his mind cement hardened? Has his window for recovery closed? Did I do enough, early enough?
The TACA website scoffs at the notion that 5 is a magic age and gives examples of individuals with autism who were helped by dietary changes in their teens and even early adult years. That’s hopeful to me–but at the same time, both the examples cited were only “helped.” My husband and I had been pushing for “recovered.”
In general, Logan is a happy, healthy, playful kid who loves superheroes, the board game Sorry, and riding his bike to the park. He impresses his teachers with how advanced he is at reading, spelling, and sounding out words, and he flies through math flash cards. He engages with me while playing, does so somewhat less with his sister, and a tad less with his friends at daycare–which is to say, he does interact with the kids at daycare.
Then there are days–or weeks–like last week. Everything had to be exactly a certain way. He’d stand at the top of the stairs, crying, pleading with me to come back up and walk down right behind him–not in front of him, not to the side of him. When we entered the kitchen, we had to walk around the center island clockwise.
On Thursday, when we arrived at social skills group, we realized we’d forgotten his truck at home. He screamed, and kept screaming, as we walked in the building, as his therapist took him back to the room, and as the kids began their initial play time. He could not be pacified, and when Lego time was over and everyone moved on to the next activity, Logan began screaming that he hadn’t had a chance to play with Legos.
“You chose to cry instead of play,” he was told. “So that chance has passed. But that’s OK–now you can choose to come sing with us.”
Logan kept screaming about not getting to play Legos, and when song was over, he screamed about not getting to sing. This pattern repeated itself pretty much all day. And actually, it popped up again and again throughout the week.
“All kids have tantrums,” argues my husband, who feels recovery has been more or less reached and that diet may no longer be necessary.
And granted, days like that are incredible rare. And sure, all kids do have tantrums – but Logan’s they feel less like tantrums to me than physically crushing attacks of anxiety. His brow draws tight like purse strings. His breath quickens, then his body thrashes around as if trying to fight off an unseen enemy. His panic seems to emanate, and I even begin to feel hot and tight and claustrophobic, too. His voice quivers as he tries to take his shaky deep breaths and say, “Mom, can you please walk this way? Please? Please!” Perhaps all kids do meltdown like this, but I’ve never seen this combination of anxiety and anger in his neurotypical sister. When she throws a fit, she sounds mad and insistent; Logan sounds panicked and obsessed.
But again, these days are rare. If Logan’s brain cement has hardened, it’s molded into a mostly lovely child. Still, I can’t help but wonder—is that window truly closed? Have I missed my opportunity to help my son? And now that he reached that magic age of 5, where do we go from here?
Feeling: Out of time