When I knock on the front door of the neat mini-home tucked away on a back road in Mount Pleasant, the curtains in the front window move and a pair of hands holding yellow rubber gloves appear against the glass but no one calls out, “Mom! Someone’s at the door.” As Nicole Rushton brings me inside, her 10-year-old son Bryson waggles the rubber gloves at me. He’s vocalizing, a steady stream of sounds but none are words.
Bryson has autism.
“He was a very quickly developing baby,” Nicole recalls. “At six months, he probably had six to eight words that he said on his own without prompting. Nine months, if you helped him stand on his feet, he could walk all day long. He couldn’t crawl until he was a year and a half but he walked.”
When it was time to return to work, Nicole found a babysitter for Bryson. It was the babysitter who noticed that the 18-month-old boy ignored the commotion around him.
“She thought Bryson was hard of hearing,” says Nicole so she followed the babysitter’s suggestion that she have his hearing tested. The person who performed the test told Nicole she should contact Cumberland Early Intervention Program because the hearing tests were normal.
An assessment by program staff resulted in the diagnosis of autism.
“He had lack of eye contact,” Nicole says. “Even the words he already had seemed to shut off, and he had very repetitive behaviour. He wouldn’t respond to his name at all. He’d been progressing so quickly and it was like a switch went off.”
It wasn’t easy for Nicole to accept that her son had autism.
“I was quite upset. My little boy was perfect in every way and I didn’t know anything about autism. All I heard was that something was wrong. They were telling me that my little boy was very special but I was in a totally different direction.”
Nicole pauses, takes a deep breath. Since then, her outlook has changed profoundly.
“He is special,” Nicole says of Bryson. “He’s happy, he’s healthy. He shows emotion. We’d hoped his language would come back but it never did. He makes a lot of sounds but he does not communicate with his words.”
Understanding what Bryson wants and needs is the greatest challenge, then. Bryson assumes that his mother already knows what he wants so when Nicole doesn’t understand, he gets frustrated. On a good day, when she asks him to “show Mommy”, he will but she says on an overwhelming day, he might not have the patience; he just wants what he wants.
“But the most frustrating is when he is sick,” Nicole says. “You don’t know what hurts. When he is sick, I constantly watch him to pick up on his non-verbal cues, like holding his stomach or holding his head. It’s a helpless feeling.”
Bryson is not as self-sufficient as other 10-year- olds but he is able to do things on his own, like brush his teeth, if his mother asks him to. One evening, when she suggested it was time for a bath, he went and ran the water by himself.
“I’m creating opportunities for him to be independent,” says Nicole. “For instance, walking from our house to my mom’s house.” (Her parents live about 150 yards away on this empty gravel road.) “I’ll call my mother and tell her I’m sending him over. She stands on her front step while I stand on mind and I can see him all the way over.”
These are the moments that remind her that there is more to Bryson than autism.
“Sometimes he is like a typical kid in every sense, except for the speaking. I have to remind myself that certain things that he does are not because he is autistic but because he’s a kid. Like if I open the door, he’ll close it and want to open it himself. That’s not necessarily an autistic thing. I know he’s labelled autistic but not everything he does is.”
Nicole, who was 24 when Bryson was born, says the past ten years have taught her not to take the small things for granted. And sometimes, those small things come with a big jump in understanding.
“We went down the back road for a walk,” Nicole says, “and I saw an apple tree. ‘Look, apples,’ I said, trying to get Bryson’s attention. I picked him up, this was when he was smaller, and said ‘Look, apple,’ and touched it but he was looking all around, making his noises, couldn’t care less. I put him back down and grabbed a couple of apples to see if he’d carry them but he showed no interest. We walked down to the pond because he likes water and I threw the apples into the pond. They’d splash and he liked that so I gave him one and he threw it. Two weeks later,” she continues, “we took the same walk but I was just walking, not paying attention, and Bryson was behind me. I looked and he was staring at the apple tree. The same tree that I didn’t think he’d seen. I lifted him up and he was grabbing for apples. He carried them down to the pond and he threw all the apples he had in his hands into the water.”
For most of us, that would be one moment out of a thousand. For Nicole, “It was amazing. He does stuff like that all the time that blows me away.”
Which is what makes Bryson special.