When did I first know something was amiss with Nat? Almost immediately. Something inside me told me that mothering a newborn was not supposed to feel so flat. Sometimes I look at the old videos of baby Nat, and I grimly play “find the autism.” I look for signs of lack of affect, eye contact, affection. It is so tough to pinpoint. Yet there is indeed something missing when I watch him—what, I still cannot say. Do I see it because I now know to look?
At first the autism came in little bursts, bad moments here and there, sprinklings of disappointment in what he did or didn’t do. Nat startled easily and often, though this could have been just a newborn thing; I have no way of knowing. Another possible sign: He didn’t actually look at me for any length of time until his fifth day of life, when suddenly his eyes were opened almost absurdly wide. My sister Laura visited us that day. A medical student, and an aunt for the first time, she was thrilled with this chance to bond with a baby, especially mine. Nat was fully alert and experiencing this world, and it was a noisy, chaotic place for him. Laura and I noted his wide-eyed stare, thinking it was cute.
During Nat’s first week, I did express a few misgivings about the way he would throw up his hands at the slightest jostling or sound. “Why does he do that?” I asked my sister. It was easier asking her, a med student, than calling the pediatrician, whom I felt I was already calling too much.
“That’s his startle reflex,” Laura explained. “Infants have that to protect themselves, to let them know something’s around.”
But why did he do it so often? The least little thing would set him off. Arms shooting up, eyes wide. His body would explode in reaction to every sudden move or loud noise. It didn’t seem right to me, no matter what I was told about it.
But Ned was not worried about Nat. His confidence made me feel both reassured and lonely. He pointed out that Nat did smile at us, after all. In fact, Nat displayed a sense of comfort and ease around all the adults in his life. So Ned focussed on this rather than on the piece that somehow did not feel right to me. Ned has always been one to quietly accept the foibles of others, baby Nat included. But although he could quiet my fears about Nat, after a while they would inevitably reemerge.
Copyright 2005, Susan Senator