By Abby Garcia, Demand Planner for Grocery Impulse
“Should we change his name to Jack?” I asked my perpetually patient husband. “And why would we do that?” he sighed. Hugo must be too difficult to say, to hear, to grasp. “Hugo!” We’d say, again and again. We’d shout it a little louder. “Hugoooooo!” But nothing. Perhaps we should have called him Jack. Something monosyllabic.
Family and friends would say “All toddlers have different personalities; he’s just playing it cool!” or “he’ll speak when he’s ready.”
A couple of months later, we had the 18-month check. “If you tell Hugo to get his shoes, does he?” the health visitor asked. I tried it out. No. I put the shoes near him. Still no. I tried this with lots of things, and still no acknowledgement. Panic set in.
“Does he say 50 – 100 words?” she asked. I knew the answer was none. I began to wonder: why isn’t my child meeting these benchmarks?
It must be a hearing issue, I thought. At the hospital, the results of a completed hearing test came back satisfactory. Back home, this prompted me to gingerly type ‘autism symptoms for toddlers’ into google.
Hugo had them all. I passed my husband the laptop. He read it and rolled his eyes. “come on,” he said. “he doesn’t do this, or this, or that.” I went to bed that night, but I didn’t sleep.
The next day I phoned our GP, and she went through the screening questions. Afterwards, she said there were enough ‘red flags’ to warrant a referral to the paediatrician at the children’s clinic to test Hugo for autism.
My mind whizzed back and forth like a Newton’s cradle. Is he? Isn’t he? What can I do? Have I lost my happy baby? Did he always social smile? He laughs when we tickle him, right? What about eye contact? He looks you in the eye at bath time, remember? When you pause just before pouring the jug?
We brought these points up to the paediatrician at the autism assessment. “A neurotypical child would be doing these things all the time, not just rarely. I think your son shows all the clear and significant traits for autism.” She said this with a sigh, before her eyes widened. “Are you OK?” she asked.
We left the GP’s office and walked back through the waiting room. It was Easter time, and a nurse wanted to give Hugo an Easter Egg. “Here you go, little guy!” she said. Hugo didn’t look up at her. He just wanted to continue to peel the arrow stickers up off the floor.
Thanking the nurse, I took the egg. I bundled my little guy up into my arms and took him out to the car. Once we were inside and I was out of his eyeline, I cried.
The feelings hit like a ton of bricks. Guilt. Blame. Self-doubt. Worry. Sleepless nights and second-guessing each decision. I’d like to say it’s got easier. I think, over time, it has.
I watch him more intently now. I love watching his face light up as he gets entranced by the leaves on the trees swaying in the wind at the bottom of the garden. He often has a conker in one hand and a leaf in the other. They’ll stay with him until bedtime. I know better than to try to pry things out of his tight grip. I appreciate that little guy now more than ever, and believe me, I absolutely adored him to begin with.
When playing, Hugo squeals, and an excited grin spreads across his face. He’ll look back at his drawings on our garage walls and beam with pride as not one brick has escaped his chalk. With his job complete, he’ll move on to the patio flags. To the window. To the carpet inside the house.
I wanted to share our story as Hugo is a cheeky and vibrant two-year-old. Oh, and he’s autistic. But that doesn’t define him. It’s a label I hope will open doors to get him the support he needs to flourish, to thrive, to feel understood, and to feel safe. This year, World Autism Acceptance Week is from 28 March to 3 April. If you’re starting out on your journey or just want to find out more, there’s lots of information, guidance, and support available from the National Autistic Society – just visit their website.