‘I saw the signs, I just didn’t understand them’

EVER since he was born, Liam Ford has always been content in his own little world, focusing intensely on whatever interests him. He has never been too keen on speaking, socialising with other children or parallel play. At first his mother Lasine Matthews thought he just had a very reserved personality, but soon she started to become a little concerned about her son’s development.

“I didn’t know much about autism; I wasn’t sure what it was. I would hear the term occasionally on television programmes and so on, but I didn’t know anything concrete about it,” she told All Woman.

But as he grew from an infant into a toddler, Matthews couldn’t help but notice that there was a stark difference in her son’s temperament and speech development from all the other children at his nursery.

“He didn’t have any interest in playing with other kids, or using crayons and pens to mark on walls and so on. He had no interest in holding anything in his hands for too long, but he was always very interested in his ABCs and numbers, so he preferred to just watch educational programmes,” Matthews shared. “When he went to school he would either play by himself or cling to his favourite teacher.”

She found it amusing that Liam had a peculiar fascination with vehicle licence plates. Though he could not speak clearly, Liam knew the words and letters, and would methodically point them out on every vehicle he came across in public.

“This made me a bit suspicious,” she recalled. “I realised that if we were in any new environment, any public place, he’d get a little irritated, but then he’d look around for something to ‘read’ by picking out the letters and numbers from it.”

But when she mentioned it to friends and relatives, and even nurses at a routine check-up, she was encouraged to watch and wait for his speech to catch up to that of his peers.

It wasn’t until she was watching a movie with an autistic character that Matthews saw the striking similarities in her son’s behaviour, including his obsession with licence plate numbers.

But the mother followed her instincts and took him to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Though she was not surprised, Matthews was still shaken up by the diagnosis, as she knew it would permanently alter the course of her son’s life.

“It shook me, but not for me… I was worried about how others would react to him, and whether they would treat him as if he is abnormal or disabled,” she said. “I’m worried about him because of other people and what they may not know, or how they might treat him when they feel like he is being rude or unruly.”

After the diagnosis, and from doing her own research, Matthews was able to identify the signs Liam had been showing from infancy.

“He was always very easily irritated, impatient, and focused on educational material. He is not the type to watch Paw Patrol or Spongebob or any of those things — it has to be something that is teaching him directly,” she noted. “From even before he turned one, he used to hit his head on the wall or the floor when he got upset. Because of this, he always had a bruise in the forehead. I saw the signs but I just didn’t understand them.”

Liam will turn four in August, and while it is a challenging quest for her to get the help that her son needs in Jamaica, Matthews is celebrating the fact that she now knows enough to seek help for him. She knows that though he may now be officially on the spectrum, Liam is still the sweet little boy she gave birth to.

“My son is brilliant. He is a bright, smart boy. His sense of humour is the best. He is, to me, a very normal baby. He just has something different to him,” she said. “We have this connection; I know exactly what he is saying and feeling, and he reacts to me. I just have to make sure that he has a specific routine as much as possible. If there is a slight change in the routine he gets mad, and it’s hard for him to adjust all over again.”

While Matthews is currently exploring the best options for her son to receive speech and occupational therapy, she is also encouraging parents to look out for and acknowledge the signs of autism in their children, so they can prepare them as best as possible for fulfilling lives.

“I know that getting the help in Jamaica is not very simple, accessible or affordable,” she pointed out. “I’ve been on wait lists, and I’ve seen therapists who’ve recommended me to somebody else because they say he needs another type of therapy. It has been a little draining, and I just feel like there aren’t enough easily accessible resources here. I know that a lot of people suspect that their child or children have autism, but they just don’t have the proper tools to go about it, or they don’t understand. I advise them to trust their gut, and reach out to others, so your child isn’t left behind.”

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