Flowers, cards, breakfast in bed, and lots of hugs and kisses all are what a mother typically expects to receive from her children on Mother’s Day.
But for many mothers of children with autism, their experience is very different.
“I know that Gavin will never come up to me and say ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ ” Monica Schrader said of her 3-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism about a year and a half ago.
Many times, children with autism are unable to express emotion, said Kim Thomas, interim president of the S.C. Autism Society.
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“They have a difficult time expressing their emotions because of their issues with communication,” she said.
One in 88 U.S. schoolchildren is affected by autism, Thomas said, and there are more than 52,000 people with an autism spectrum disorder in South Carolina.
Children on the autism spectrum can have a number of different symptoms. Children diagnosed with profound autism often are unable to speak and must communicate through sign language or pictures, Thomas said.
On the other end of the spectrum, children diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, also known as PDD-NOS, typically have issues in the areas of social interaction, communication or stereotyped behavior patterns or interests, but do not meet the criteria for autism.
Schrader, of Conway, said having a daughter who is now 5, she could tell when her son was very young that something was off.
“He wouldn’t hug me,” Schrader said. “He wouldn’t make a lot of eye contact. He was banging his head real bad … on the floor or the walls when he got frustrated. One day I was like, ‘I’m calling someone. Something is wrong.’ ”
Schrader said last year was the first Mother’s Day she had with Gavin after his diagnosis. She said it was hard to celebrate with him because she was afraid to take him out in public because she would feel judged when Gavin had a tantrum or acted differently than other children.
“Once you get to the acceptance part of it when you’re dealing with autism, it’s easier,” she said. “Last year I wasn’t there, so I didn’t take it well. I feel better about it this year.”
Schrader said she hopes she will be able to go out with her husband and two children and enjoy Mother’s Day this year.
Thomas said she can understand how it would be hard for a mother who has recently learned her child has autism to understand and accept that her child will behave differently than is typically expected.
“You know your child,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t love you. With [some forms of] autism, they tend to be in their own world. It’s not that they don’t love you. The more you do [applied behavior analysis] therapy it eventually starts to click and you’ll see a big difference in your child.”
Schrader enrolled Gavin in applied behavior analysis therapy shortly after he was diagnosed and he has taken strides in his development.
“We have to teach him to say ‘hi’ or teach him to say ‘I love you,’ ” Schrader said. “It doesn’t come naturally. … I remember the day after Christmas was the first time he said to me, ‘loves you.’ ”
Schrader said her 5-year-old daughter Payton, who she describes as being a “typical” child, is very loving and affectionate, but Gavin isn’t able to learn social behaviors that way.
“It takes him a little longer to learn and he learns a different way,” Schrader said. “He doesn’t learn by watching his sister. You have to teach him.”
Christy Coon, a therapist at Building Futures Autism Clinic in Myrtle Beach who works with Gavin, said therapists will help the children make a gift to take home for Mother’s Day.
“We make cards to help them appreciate [Mother’s Day],” she said. “So at least there’s something that they can give their parent.”
Coon also said parents should pay attention to the way their child communicates.
“Take the little things like the smiles and see the eye contact and those gestures,” she said. “Learn to love the smaller things.”