Thirty years ago, K was born. Her development was unlike any child I knew. We blamed her hesitancy to speak on her adoptive status, being the youngest of three and even her poor vision. If she talked, she would echo conversations or obsess on one topic.
Neighbor children grew impatient with K. One classmate told me, “K is really weird.” That sentiment was shared by most schoolmates. At age 12, her idiosyncratic behavior earned the label: “high on the autism spectrum.”
Autism had not achieved ubiquitous status when we were searching for answers. K’s pediatrician knew little about what was then called Asperger syndrome. At 12, we took K to see “Ben Hur.” That triggered her obsession with Charlton Heston. She had to see all of his movies. The school psychologist thought this was “cute.” Seriously?
K did not bathe independently until age 13. She eschews froufrou and wears whatever is within reach, always favoring two or three soft shirts and pants. It took hundreds of tries before she would cross the street to get the school bus by herself. K had EEGs for persistent tics and grunts that lasted several years, but were ruled unproblematic. Tell that to a classmate or teacher. K’s first neuropsychologist predicted that K would not attend college, live independently or be employed.
At 13, K began carrying a house key in case of an emergency. During Buffalo’s record-breaking snowstorm in November 2000, K’s special bus brought her home minutes before hundreds of buses were stuck at schools or en route. K’s dad was stranded overnight in his car on the 190. My next-door neighbor and I worked at the same school and walked several treacherous, snowy miles to get home.
We didn’t have cellphones. Trudging up my driveway, I saw the glow of the television. Entering the house, I switched on lights, hugged K and was relieved she was safe. I asked, “Why didn’t you turn on the lights?” She said, “I don’t know how to turn them on.” We had to teach her many things that most children simply ascertain. Thankfully, we had taught her how to control the TV.
Despite lacking simple skills, K memorized the unabridged “Les Misérables” and recited passages on demand. Visions of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” haunted us, especially after K’s severe meltdown when a smoke alarm shrieked due to a smoking toaster.
Sketching calms K and helps her focus. She prefers almost any living, crawling or flying species to most humans. After multiple pets, Bella, her cockatiel, is her best friend. K showers with Bella and walks her outside on a leash.
K defied educational predictions. She earned a bachelor’s degree in science and animation, and a bachelor’s as a medical scientist. She refused accommodations and never accepted any help with assignments. She doesn’t drive, but works full time. She lives with parents because she prefers it.
Her artwork astonishes observers, but her personality prevented her from earning a living as an artist. Her attention to detail, laser-sharp focus, integrity and love of science make her an indispensable member of a lifesaving team in a hospital STAT laboratory.
Observing K develop for 30 years has been a daily surprise. K still has communication difficulties. She dislikes change, and prefers routines, but exudes joy when Bella is with her. K has taught me patience and the painful foolishness of negative expectations.