When the psychologist examining our 18-month-old son told me that she thought Miles had autism, my heart began to pound. I didn't know exactly what the word meant, but I knew it was bad. Wasn't autism some type of mental illness -- perhaps juvenile schizophrenia? Even worse, I vaguely remembered hearing that this disorder was caused by emotional trauma during childhood. In an instant, every illusion of safety in my world seemed to vanish.
Our pediatrician had referred us to the psychologist in August 1995 because Miles didn't seem to understand anything we said. He'd developed perfectly normally until he was 15 months old, but then he stopped saying the words he'd learned -- cow, cat, dance -- and started disappearing into himself. We figured his chronic ear infections were responsible for his silence, but within three months, he was truly in his own world.
Suddenly, our happy little boy hardly seemed to recognize us or his 3-year-old sister. Miles wouldn't make eye contact or even try to communicate by pointing or gesturing. His behavior became increasingly strange: He'd drag his head across the floor, walk on his toes (very common in autistic children), make odd gurgling sounds, and spend long periods of time repeating an action, such as opening and closing doors or filling and emptying a cup of sand in the sandbox. He often screamed inconsolably, refusing to be held or comforted. And he developed chronic diarrhea.
As I later learned, autism -- or autistic spectrum disorder, as doctors now call it -- is not a mental illness. It is a developmental disability thought to be caused by an anomaly in the brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 1 in 88 children are affected. But according to several recent studies, the incidence is rapidly rising: In Florida, for example, the number of autistic children has increased nearly 600 percent in the last ten years. Nevertheless, even though it is more common than Down syndrome, autism remains one of the least understood developmental disorders.
We were told that Miles would almost definitely grow up to be severely impaired. He would never be able to make friends, have a meaningful conversation, learn in a regular classroom without special help, or live independently. We could only hope that with behavioral therapy, we might be able to teach him some of the social skills he'd never grasp on his own.
I had always thought that the worst thing that could happen to anyone was to lose a child. Now it was happening to me but in a perverse, inexplicable way. Instead of condolences, I got uncomfortable glances, inappropriately cheerful reassurances, and the sense that some of my friends didn't want to return my calls.
After Miles' initial diagnosis, I spent hours in the library, searching for the reason he'd changed so dramatically. Then I came across a book that mentioned an autistic child whose mother believed that his symptoms had been caused by a "cerebral allergy" to milk. I'd never heard of this, but the thought lingered in my mind because Miles drank an inordinate amount of milk -- at least half a gallon a day.
Then I realized that Miles' ear infections had begun when he was 11 months old, just after we had switched him from soy formula to cow's milk. He'd been on soy formula because my family was prone to allergies, and I'd read that soy might be better for him. I had breast-fed until he was 3 months old, but he didn't tolerate breast milk very well -- possibly because I was drinking lots of milk. There was nothing to lose, so I decided to eliminate all the dairy products from his diet.