By Daniel J. Vance
Jeff McAndrew of North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, has a recurring dream.
"In it I see my sons Ryan and Stephen playing on a crisp fall morning," said McAndrew, a radio news anchor, recently over the telephone. "They're wearing sweatshirts, playing in leaves, and throwing a football. And I hear Stephen's infectious laugh. Then I wake from this dream and have to change Stephen's diaper. The dream gives me hope. I've had it three or four times."
But Jeff's dream is only that. In real life his son Stephen, 8, doesn't speak, dress himself, or go to the bathroom alone. He has a below-the-chart I.Q. To communicate he touches pictures, such as the one of a cereal bowl to let everyone know he's hungry.
Stephen at 2 was diagnosed with a severe form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The National Institute of Mental Health website explains that ASD is a disorder affecting brain functioning "characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior." It affects one child in 500, is four times more prevalent in boys and has no known cause or cure.
Said McAndrew, "One time my wife Debbie picked Stephen up at respite care and he said, 'Mama.' But he hasn't done that again. And sometimes he uncharacteristically maintains eye contact and says something sounding like 'Dada.' It sends shivers down my spine. Then two years ago at a park, he was playing in the sand and a girl with Down syndrome joined. Stephen and the girl were attracted to each other and had eye contact. She gave him a hug. My wife and I were in tears. We thanked the mother for bringing her daughter."
Another incident involving Stephen: "I was reading the newspaper and alone with him when he was 2," said McAndrew. "Holding himself up by the couch, suddenly he walked to me. Not only did he hold himself up on me, he did an about-face, walked down the hallway, and looked in the mirror before laughing hysterically. When Debbie and Ryan came home they didn't believe me. An hour later he did it again [and has continued walking]. All these little joys keep us going."
By reading McAndrew's 200-page book, "Our Brown-Eyed Boy," parents and others can learn more about being "in-the-trenches" and coping with severe ASD.