Discovering Michael

by Jackie D. Igafo-Te'o

Michael was named before his toes were even formed inside of my womb. Everything went along perfectly until the last few months of pregnancy when an amniocentesis came back abnormal. I was put on bed rest and had developed preclampsia and high blood pressure. To make matters worse, the placenta which held Michael was upside down and torn. Things seemed to spiral out of control.

On the day that Michael was born, we thanked God and cried. After they removed him from my womb, I remember hearing them say, "He's not breathing!" They rushed from my bedside to his. At that moment I begged God to let him live. I remember seeing my husband cry for the first time that day. We wanted Michael in our lives so badly. At that point, we didn't care if he was sick, mentally retarded or deformed. We just wanted our baby to live.

Michael was one of the most beautiful babies that we had ever seen. We were sure that God had been looking down on us on the day that he was born. He had spared his life.

He slept in an incubator in the nursery during the first five days of his stay at the hospital. It would be several more days before he was permitted to leave with us. Within days, he was back in the hospital. He wasn't breathing.

Test after test would show nothing. Each night for over a year, he was hooked to an apnea monitor. Leads ran through his little pajamas at every angle. Twice daily he was subjected to breathing treatments. If he was uncomfortable, he never showed it. He was always smiling.

Over the next few years we would begin to discover the complexity of our young son. It wasn't until he lost his speech ability and began to injure himself that we had a clue into his disability. Things seemed to start becoming even more disturbing at a rapid rate. Michael developed physically at a typical rate. He reached all of his growth milestones as if the charts were modeled after him. It was the social and emotional issues that started to beg for attention. He could never look at us in the eyes despite our attempts to force him. I remember holding his face in my hands and begging him to look into my eyes. He just turned away as if it were painful for him.

By two years of age, Michael's behaviors had escalated. When we called, he never answered. He had started rocking, slamming his hands in the doors repeatedly despite the screams of pain, and banging his head against the wall. He would do everything over and over again. He never slept. Instead, he would wander through the house in the dark.

Family members offered to care for Michael for our Anniversary. We were having our first date alone in nearly two years when the call came in. Our son was missing. They called 9-1-1 and the police mounted a huge search for our son. Getting that call was one of the worst moments of my life. It would be hours before we heard the call come in over the police radio that Michael had been found safe at a playground several blocks away. I remember running through the subdivision passing onlookers with looks of wonder on their faces. They had no idea why I was so upset. Little did I know that this would happen again and again in his lifetime.

When company came to visit, he would bolt upstairs into his own little cartoon world where he would draw and redraw the same images hundreds of times or rewind a video over and over again. When his favorite shows would come on TV, he'd come running. His outbursts during these episodes were very intense. There are holes in every single wall of our home and in every single room. Fixing them became a waste of time.

We started frequenting doctor's offices. We asked dozens of questions. Every time they performed a test, the results would come back normal. The process seemed to go on forever.

Michael was formally diagnosed with Autism at age three, thanks to my dad's research and a great doctor. Through intensive early intervention services, he eventually regained speech and started looking at us in the face. For the next two years, he was placed in a classroom with an amazing teaching team (Becky Wilcox and Erin Bushinski of the Lyle Torrant Center in Jackson, Michigan) where he blossomed. He soon started coming up to us for hugs and kisses. Our boy was finally happy to see us.