A Mother’s Memoir of Autism, Madness and Hope
Can anyone help me? Get me out of here! I go to the light switch by the door again. I switch the overhead light on and off, my only way to communicate with the outside world. I let it shine for three short seconds, then three long, three short: SOS.
When I’ve doused the light, darkness sinks into my room on the seventh floor, my prison, Ward 22. I cross to the window and look out into the dusky summer night, moving toward dawn. I peer out over parking lots, buildings, houses and homes.
Is nobody there? Nobody listening, hearing, or seeing?
No one anywhere.
I rest my forehead against the cool windowpane and tears run slowly down my cheeks.
Three years earlier, I’m sitting at my office desk, gazing over Johannes Park in Stockholm. It’s early December, and the snowfall is light and flakey. It swirls slowly outside the window. A lone man walks by with his dog. A sudden pain inside my stomach, high up under my ribcage, is uncomfortable and I move to change position. It’s my first contraction, but I only realize that later on. I am at the end of my first pregnancy. In little more than a week, my baby is due and I’m trying to finish up business and clean off my desk.
The office is lively. Telephones are ringing everywhere. People answer them, chatting and laughing. There are ten of us working here now. It’s our company, our baby, in which we invest all our waking hours, from early morning to late at night. The company is thriving, and we’re being written up in the press. When we started out, it was just the two of us, my husband Carl and me. In those days, we worked out of a basement in Vasastan.
That was back when people still faxed each other and the Internet hardly existed. We run a speakers’ bureau and make our living on the spoken word. “Speech is golden” is our motto, in contrast to the adage, “Speech is silver and silence is golden.” We help businesses and organizations find the right speakers for conferences and courses. We seek out speakers who have a burning devotion and desire to share their knowledge and experience, from politicians, CEOs, and experts to celebrities and performers.
I remember how Carl and I met just a couple of years ago: Moved in together, started a business together, got engaged, got married, bought a house and now, soon we’ll have a baby. It’s all happened so fast, and it’s been great. Sometimes I wonder what we did to deserve it all. Life can’t get much better.
The First Signs
It’s midday, just past twelve. People crowd the main entrance to the Åhlén’s City department store. Efficient businessmen and women take decisive strides through the doors, running errands on their lunch breaks. There are people everywhere, but they move smoothly and without bumping into each other to the escalator that takes them up into the upper floors. Others stroll around idly, trying out perfume and looking at makeup in the cosmetics department, here on the first floor. Two teenage girls giggle with joy when a sales clerk helps one of them apply some eye shadow.
Lucas and I are waiting for an elevator. All the moms know that the best changing room in town is on the fourth floor of Åhléns. It is large and well organized, with couches to sit on and nurse your infant, several tables for diaper changes, toilets for moms and dads, a play area for siblings, and a microwave for heating baby food. It’s on the same floor as the children’s clothing department. When you’ve finished caring for your little ones and they’re fed and satisfied, there’s always time to look for some new garment they may need. The people at Åhlén’s know how to get parents to shop.
The elevators take a while. I see that both of them are on the top floor. Next to me is another mother. In her arms, she’s holding a little boy with curly, brown-hair.
“Hola, guapocito, mi cariño,” she addresses him in Spanish.
She kisses, cuddles, and teases him.
She tickles his ribs. He wriggles, trying to avoid it, nearly choking with laughter. Then he sees me. Maybe I’m staring, I don’t know. My gaze meets his. He turns serious, his lips pucker, and I wonder if he’s going to cry. But then he breaks into a giant smile. I smile back at him and his brown eyes sparkle. He hands me his pacifier. It’s blue and white, with a little brown bear printed on the middle.
“How nice,” I say and hand it back to him.
It looks like he nods and quickly stuffs it back in his mouth. His eyes are still sparkling.
I turn to his mother and ask, “How old is he?”
“He’ll be six months next week,” she answers in broken Swedish and strokes his cheek.
“He’s very sweet,” I say, and she smiles.
I look at my own son. He has a tight grip on the edge of the carriage. He’s just learned to sit up and still tumbles over easily. He seems entirely unaware of the little boy his own age, right next to him. Lucas sits with his face turned away.
What is he watching? I follow his gaze. Maybe it’s the small white table fan spinning on the counter over there, maybe something else. I don’t know.
Ding—my thoughts are interrupted, the elevator is here and the doors open. People exit and we enter. It’s crowded. Two baby carriages, elderly ladies, young girls, and men. A lady in a green coat stands close to Lucas. She smiles at him and tries to catch his attention, but he ignores her and looks in another direction. She seems disappointed. I watch the little dark boy. He’s smiling at anyone who looks at him, fully enjoying all the attention.
Faces don’t seem to mean anything to Lucas. Strangers don’t interest him at all. He’s more fascinated with physical objects, like spinning fans or a fountain that sprays water, but also with shadows playing on the wall or bright lights. I think back to how, at his four-month checkup, I asked the doctor why Lucas didn’t want to look at me or meet my gaze. She asked me to hold him close, turn him toward me, and say something to him. He took a quick look, and then turned away.
“There, you see?” She said. “He looks at you just fine!”
“But just quickly,” I said.
“Don’t worry. He’s still little. He’ll react more and more the older he gets.”