Ashleigh and I met in eighth grade. We survived high school together, stayed in touch through college, and eventually ended up in our hometown, married, with careers, and pregnant at exactly the same time. We binged on Dairy Queen after our daily walk, complained to each other about our swollen feet and huge belly, and waited impatiently for D-day as we dreamed and schemed about all that our children would do together.
In April 2008, Ashleigh gave birth to her son Loki, and four days later, I had Liam. They were perfect little boys and we were feeling radiant as new moms. But as our children got older, I noticed differences between them. Ashleigh's son slept peacefully, but mine never settled into a sleep routine. Loki was happy to stay with other people, while Liam screeched for hours if I left him with anyone.
At the park, Loki ran, slid, babbled, and listened to Ashleigh. I found myself hovering over Liam, worried because he didn't climb, jump, or slide on his own. Playdates, parties, and get-togethers were traumatic for me, and I spent most of them chasing Liam.
Sadly, our friendship suffered because of these differences. "There was a lot of tension between us then," Ashleigh admitted when I told her I was writing this essay. "I worried about you and Liam, but I didn't say anything because it seemed like you always had an excuse for why he wasn't doing what other kids his age were doing."
I see that now. I remember telling people Liam was tired, hungry, or sick, as a way of explaining why he wouldn't interact with them at all. I never came out and said his behavior was strange, and neither did Ashleigh, and the stress between us escalated as our children grew older.
By Liam's second birthday, I had no time to focus on the problems in our relationship. I was eight months pregnant with my second child, teaching full-time, prepping for a move from Tennessee to Wisconsin for my husband's Ph.D. program, and still not sure if Liam was delayed or just different from other kids.
I threw him a huge birthday party and by the end of it, it was clear that something was wrong. He wasn't using any of the words he had been able to say just a few months earlier. While Loki chatted with other kids and splashed in a kiddie pool, Liam ignored his cake, guests, and presents. He was happy to lick the porch railings and flap his arms; he didn't even blow out his candles. It was devastating and I went to bed physically and emotionally drained.
That same night, Ashleigh spent an hour on the phone with my sister -- one of many calls they shared during this time to talk about Liam's delays, I later learned. They discussed the best way to approach me and decided that my sister should be the one to put a name on it all. The next day, I met her at the park with Liam and she blindsided me with one word: autism.
It's a terrifying word, and when it comes out of nowhere to slice through all of your denials, it cuts deep.
I yelled at my sister, fled the park with Liam, and sobbed the whole way home. I think I knew in my heart that she was right. When I called Ashleigh, hoping she'd tell me my sister was overreacting, she simply let me vent. I found out later that my sister also called her crying, just after I did, and so Ashleigh was stuck in the middle.
But I had to put the thought of autism aside and deal with the many changes at hand: My second son, Eliot, arrived; we moved to the Midwest; and we slowly settled into our new life in Wisconsin. A few months later, when I finally was able to look at Liam objectively, without the daily pressure of seeing Ashleigh and Loki, I realized that my son's development was truly worrisome. I called our state's Birth to Three Program, which handles early intervention for developmental delays, and we began the evaluation process.
Meanwhile, Ashleigh's life was going through a lot of changes too. She gave birth to her third child (she'd had a daughter around our sons' second birthday), moved from Tennessee to Texas for work, and was dealing with all of the stress that that brings. I rarely called her and she didn't call me either. At this point, it would have been very easy to let all our years of friendship go.