Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Autism Christmas Carol – Inspired by Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol”

by Dan Olawski

It had been a stressful, emotional, and exhausting few weeks. And this night, Christmas Eve, had been more of the same.

Mikey’s autism had been in full-blown mode, with the added challenges of severe gastric problems that were impacting all of our lives. It had taken all of our strength and patience to get Mikey to bed tonight. And, finally, he was asleep.

My wife and I spent some time downstairs watching TV. But shortly after Mikey was sleeping, my wife decided she needed to go to bed, too. I was too wound up and indicated that I was going to stay on the couch a little longer and watch some more TV.

I channel-surfed for a bit and searched for a good, old movie to distract me. It wasn’t long before the remote control fell to the floor and I was fast asleep on the couch.

Suddenly, my dreams were filled with an odd, disturbing sound that sounded like hands rapidly clapping. I then realized I wasn’t dreaming as a shimmering, glowing light enveloped my eyelids and forced me to open them and squint at the horror in front of me.

For lack of a better term, it was a ghost or some kind of spirit. He floated and bobbed up and down as he flapped his hands. I was scared, but couldn’t look away. The spirit then spoke:

“I am the Ghost of Autism Past,” he bellowed as he shuddered from the effort of speaking.

“The Ghost of Autism Past?” I spoke out loud. “What kind of nightmare is this?”

“Tonight, you will be visited by The Three Ghosts of Autism. I am the first,” he shuddered. “The Ghosts of Autism Present and Autism Future will then follow.”

“Leave me alone! I just want to go to sleep! I’ve been haunted by autism enough on this night,” I pleaded.

“Come with me! Things were not always as they are now,” the haunting spirit said as he pulled me along with him.

I next found myself in a cold, white, sterile medical facility that echoed with the screams of children. I felt a chill down my spine and attempted to block the sound out by covering my ears. The ghost shook his head and said, “These are things that cannot be undone.”

“What is this place? Why do you torture me like this?” I begged.

“You do not know torture. The children of this place, they knew torture,” he admonished.

I soon realized by the clothing of the doctors, nurses, and others that, whatever this place was, we were in the late 1960s or ‘70s. It brought me back to my own childhood, but not one that was anything like this.

“Your thoughts are correct, Daniel. This is an autism treatment center in 1969,” the ghost confirmed.

“I didn’t think there were that many autistic children during this time,” I wondered aloud. “And what is being done to these kids who are here?”

“The numbers are few, the tribulations are many, the outlook is bleak,” the spirit scolded. “The 1 in 1,000 children considered autistic at this point face the prospect of cures of evil.”

“Cures of evil? What do you mean? What is going on here?” I shouted.

“In that room, where you hear the screams, a child is undergoing electric shock therapy,” said the ghost as he pointed a shaky finger. “Over there, where those children are staring aimlessly at the walls, that is the LSD therapy wing. And, down the hall, are children who live in constant fear of their therapy: Behavioral Change, which calls for pain and punishment.”

“This is horrible! This is an evil, evil place!” I screamed. “I’ve seen enough, ghost! Take me home!”

I next opened my eyes to find myself in a pool of sweat and still trembling with utter sadness. Was I losing my mind, was the stress finally getting to me?

I made my way upstairs to go to bed, pausing along the way to peek in on Mikey. He looked content. I sighed, got into bed, and let my head hit the pillow.

Just as I thought my nightmares were behind me, a new light glowed before my eyes and I heard a different unsettling sound. It was one word being repeated over and over and over. Yet, I couldn’t understand it.

“I am the Ghost of Autism Present,” he screeched.

“Of course you are,” I moaned and wondered where I would be brought next.

The ghost said no more and turned around to lead me on my next disconcerting journey. As we passed Mikey’s room the ghost gave a nod his way and we kept going.

We completed our journey in what seemed to be a classroom, not unlike the ones Mikey has been in over the past few years.

“Look upon autism as you know it now,” the ghost commanded. “Their numbers are legion, their future uncertain.”

“These children are of my Mikey’s generation. Sadly, with 1 in 50 children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, it is more common for families to be touched by this disorder,” I acknowledged.

“The cures of evil are gone now,” the spirit asserted. “But the path is still crooked and the masses overwhelm.”

“But things are better, right?” I pleaded. “We are heading in the right direction and more people are aware of autism.”

“Awareness is not enough!” the ghost howled. “There is more to autism awareness than knowing what autism means.”

“I agree. Knowing that my son is autistic doesn’t directly help him,” I conceded. “But what about ABA, special diets, and sensory therapy?”

“This is a crossroads!” the ghost’s voice shook my entire being and filled me with both fear and optimism.

Abruptly, I found myself tossing and turning back in my bed. My wife groggily whispered, “What’s the matter?”

“Can’t sleep,” I said as the mother of all underestimations. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep, Hon.”

She rolled over and I could hear she was sleeping peacefully again. I waited for my next visitor until my eyes were too heavy to fight.

These Ghosts of Autism are heartless bastards. Just as I felt the warmth of a restful sleep coming upon me, I was jolted upright by the sound of millions of children and a light that pulsed inches from my face.

Opening my eyes in fear, there was yet another specter floating next to my bed.

“I am the Ghost of…” he began.

“Autism Future. I know, I know,” I groaned with surprising audacity for someone who was facing a ghost.

“So, you have been anticipating my visit?” the ghost asked.

“Haven’t we all?” I countered.

“Tonight, I shall show you two paths,” the spirit began. “Which one is true is yet to be seen.”

I blinked and found myself in a classroom again. But this one, this one was huge. The biggest I’d ever seen. And it was jam-packed with obviously autistic children and very few teachers. Many of the children were unattended and entertained themselves with their variety of stims.

“This doesn’t look good,” I mumbled. “I’m guessing this is the bad path.”

“You are wise in your assessment, my friend,” the Ghost of Autism Future said. “Here you see the results of out-of-control autism growth, inadequate training, and an economy that doesn’t want to ‘waste its money’ on those kids.”

“How did this happen?” I asked as I fought to hold back tears. “Why did it happen?”

“Autism awareness failed to turn into autism action,” the spirit answered. “The focus remained on diagnosis and not on prevention or treatment. There aren’t enough trained teachers, doctors, and therapists to handle the millions of new autism cases each year. And the public, well, in times of squalor they turn their backs on these forgotten children.”

“This is tragic! I don’t like this path. Please, please, take me to the second path,” I begged.

With a flash of bright disorienting light, the spirit erased the horror and replaced it with a scene that didn’t register with me at first. I then realized we were in a library and pages and pages of newspaper and magazine stories were speeding across my field of vision. They were filled with headlines like:

“Congress Approves 100% Autism Insurance Coverage”

“Researchers Focus on Genetic/Environmental Causes of Autism”

“Autism Families Experience Lower Treatment Costs, More Options”

And, amazingly, jumping out in 100-point type…

“Autism Diagnoses Fall to Pre-WWII Rates”

“Are? Are these true?” I asked in awe. “Is this the second path?”

“They are a possibility. A path that will require persistence, knowledge, and love to achieve,” the ghost spoke in a steady, comforting voice.

“I can do those things, but how, how do I get others to do them?” I wondered out loud.

“Be strong. Look in your heart. Never stop doing what you are doing now,” the Ghost of Autism Future said. “If you follow your path, you can help create this path.”

“Can we go back and bring my son and my family to this path now?” I implored. “Even just for a little while?”

“This path does not exist yet,” the spirit reasoned. “You will find your way to it one day, though. For now, it will live in your dreams.”

And with that, I once again found myself in my bed. But this time, I was smiling. I rolled over and kissed my wife on the back of the head. Got up and tip-toed into Mikey’s room again. The glow from his night light lit his face and I swore he was smiling, too.

I returned to bed and as I closed my eyes I realized it was after midnight and now Christmas Day. I fell asleep and my dreams were filled with what would be the greatest gifts of all.

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