By Wayne Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
I was beginning to lose my breath. Standing behind the tripod, centering my family in the camera’s viewfinder, and running back into the picture before the timer ran down to snap a picture ought to be easy enough.
It becomes more of a challenge when the subjects of your picture, 6-year-old triplets, have no intention of sitting still, smiling, or looking into the camera for a family portrait. In addition, two of our triplets are autistic, and it’s no wonder why we were on our 27th take.
It might as well have been our 270th take. The very nature of autism, a developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and robs those afflicted with the ability to socially interact with those around them, makes it difficult for them to maintain eye contact with other people, much less a camera lens.
I never expected that I would manage to snap the perfect Polaroid moment. My goal was to snap enough pictures to individually catch each of the children smiling at the camera. That way, I could digitally cut and paste their faces together and artificially create the perfect family picture. I know the final picture isn’t going to be completely authentic, but at least I managed to draw a line in the sand when I objected to my wife’s request to “fix” her hair.
After years of struggling and adjusting to our children’s condition, you wonder why anyone would go to such great lengths to create this minor illusion. Having one more seemingly traditional family photo hanging on the wall certainly wouldn’t let us forget the reality of our lives. Sending the photo out to friends and family only serves to remind them how normal our children can look.
Perhaps the picture represents what a family can accomplish when it takes on a challenge. From the very beginning, my wife and I realized that the only chance our kids had to live independently was if we could get them to overcome their own limitations.
One common trait of autistic children is an unwillingness to try anything different, whether it’s food or an activity. We recognized this early on when we noticed that our kids would only eat grapes and milk for the rest of their lives.
I once heard someone compare autism to a warden who keeps his subjects tucked away in an isolated cell, away from the rest of the world, providing only basic sustenance for their survival. Except with autism, there are no locks on the door because they are perfectly content to serve out their life sentence.
At 3 years old, when we tried to transition my daughter Savannah into drinking other beverages like juice, lemonade, or even water, she absolutely refused all of our attempts. Even force-feeding her water from a spill proof cup would only cause her to hold the tablespoon of water in her mouth for hours at a time before ultimately spitting the water out on the floor.
We met with our pediatrician. She noted that even autistic children have a survival instinct and suggested that we withhold milk until Savannah was forced to drink something else to quench her thirst.
After three days of trying, we went back to the pediatrician because our daughter still refused to drink any water, and we were afraid she would pass out from sheer dehydration, although she seemed fine.
It was only then that we figured out that she was supplementing her liquid intake with just enough grapes to enable her to stave off thirst.
From then on, we decided that the only solution would be for us to be as stubborn as our children until they realized that we would never give up. We started off slowly — instead of letting them eat the red grapes that they were used to, we gave them green grapes. I would cajole, demand, and sometimes force the food into their mouths and badger them incessantly to swallow it. Even in restaurants, I would not make an exception, even though we often got some very unsympathetic stares from other customers as they hovered around my screaming child who did not want to try a carrot.
Success came slowly, but gradually. They were equally resistant to vegetables as they were to cake and ice cream. After several weeks, they began to tolerate the new foods, and their objections slowly became less and less vocal.
After three years of this, our kids now eat just about everything and enjoy it. My son, Ethan, eats peas, carrots, apples, and loves soup. Savannah is crazy about tofu, melons, and oranges, although she’s still not that wild on ice cream.
My wife and I are now disciplined enough to apply our version of “tough love” to nearly every aspect of their lives, whether we are trying to get them to speak, read and write, dress themselves, brush their teeth, or use the bathroom. Every improvement still begins with a struggle, but much less so as they know that Mom and Dad just aren’t going to give up.
I know our approach may seem extreme to some, and we still have a long way to go. But for the first time, I often catch a glimpse of my son or daughter with a smile on their face after discovering something new and exciting for the very first time.
The cell door is still unlocked, but for the first time, they actually like to open the door. ♦
Writer’s note: This column was written five years ago, but I was a little apprehensive to publish it, mainly because of my perception that writing a personal account of our family’s challenges might just make it a bit less personal. Now that a few years have passed, I thought I’d share this part of our lives. And by the way, above is our most recent holiday picture.
Wayne Chan can be reached at email@example.com.