Three weeks ago, a Deerfield mom of three, Violet Flemenbaum, was told that her eldest child has autism.
“We tried to convince ourselves these were just quirks,” Flemenbaum recalled about signs she and her husband had noticed before the diagnosis.
For instance, Flemenbaum said her 9-year-old son Gabriel was very literal and didn’t understand jokes. “If you say it's raining cats and dogs out, he is expecting to see cats and dogs falling from the sky,” she explained.
But a few months ago, things got worse, according to Gabriel's mother.
“It got to the point he was coming home bullied at school by other kids and he wasn’t making any friends, and we thought, ‘Maybe this is a bigger problem,' " Flemenbaum said about the turning point.
A developmental pediatrician told Flemenbaum, Gabriel was autistic.
“It confirmed that I wasn’t going crazy,” she said. “I wasn’t just seeing these things; they were actually there.”
After researching the disorder, Flemenbaum quickly discovered her son wasn’t alone. According to the Autism Program of Illinois (TAP), the disorder affects one in 110 children in the U.S. and there are currently 29,000 children dealing with the problem in Illinois, including some in Deerfield.
“There seems to be a little community here of parents with kids who have autism,” Flemenbaum said.
“Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a group of neurologically based developmental disabilities,” TAP’s website states. “ASDs can impact a person’s functioning across a wide range, from very mild to severe.
"Individuals with ASD are not different in appearance, but they may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from typical peers,” it adds.
Flemenbaum said she was initially shocked by some of the statistics she found but was relieved to get the diagnosis about her son’s problem. Then, she felt sadness.
“As a parent you feel for your kid,” she said. “It can be lonely for them and it can be lonely for you.”
That is an issue the Deerfield mother’s already had to deal with.
“A lot of times you’re almost ostracized,” she acknowledged. “You’re out in public and your child has a meltdown and people automatically assume, ‘Oh this kid is ill-behaved, the parent’s aren’t disciplining him.’ When a lot of the times it’s autism.”
It is a disorder some in the community and her own family don’t understand, added Flemenbaum.
“He [Gabriel] doesn’t quite get it," she said. "So I’ve explained to him that the doctors think he might have autism and he looks at me and his questions are more basic for someone that age.”
Gabriel has asked her if the disorder is why he can’t make any friends, according to Flemenbaum, who says her son wants to be social but doesn’t know how to do it.
“It’s very heartbreaking,” she said, adding Gabriel will ask such questions as, “Kids call me weird. Is that why I don’t get invited to any parties?”
Since April is Autism Awareness Month, Flemenbaum is encouraging the community to become more educated about the disorder.
“A lot of people still have that image of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man being the poster child of autism, and I would say that’s the biggest misconception,” she said about the Oscar-winning 1988 movie that depicts Hoffman as an autistic mathematical genius.
“You take 10 autistic children in a room and you’ll get 10 different personalities, 10 different levels of functioning,” Flemenbaum noted.
Now that Flemenbaum knows her son is going to need occupational and physical therapy as well as a psychiatrist she is asking the community to consider financially supporting autism research. She is also encouraging residents to be more emotionally supportive.
“We need more compassion from people,” said the Deerfield mom, who is working with the school system on a plan to help her son. “So when we see the mother struggling with that special needs child in the supermarket, instead of sneering or making rude comments, you can offer a compassionate word to just let her know that you understand.”
Since at this point, that’s what she’s trying to do as well.
“We’re just kind of getting used to the idea that this is part of who he is,” Flemenbaum said. “It’s pretty much a lifelong journey that we’re taking with him.”