An alien concept

Karri-Haen-OficeKhaen is a writer and science educator. Since earning her doctorate in molecular phylogenetics, she has worked as human anatomy and physiology teaching faculty. Her book of poetry, The Bone Collectors, is unpublished. She lives in Ames, Iowa with her husband and their two children.

An alien concept

A half empty auditorium where
Reluctant students watch
the white screen.
This child, unresponsive,
His name called
Over and over.
You alien.
What made you?
The flat-footed bandit
Elopes with the truth –
On his lock.

Just one word.
The pathologist kneels
And looks carefully.
It’s in there:
The greatest mystery
Of what we are.
But what is there except
My silent nightmares
Of blond dolls
Falling down silos?

Most of the time my smile
Means nothing.
Most of the time
My smile
Means nothing and
My tears are windswept.
But his smile
Is transparent
And strong
As glass.


* Author’s note:

“An alien concept” came to me the day my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I had known for many months that he was not neurotypical. As a newborn, he was the ideal baby. He slept a great deal and barely cried. But as time went by, he didn’t reach out for objects; he didn’t play with toys. The little rattles and things I bought for him sat in a drawer, untouched.

By 12 months my son was not sitting up unsupported. We started physical therapy, and he improved immensely; however, it was a long time until I could take him into a store by sitting him in a shopping cart. I used to feel an overwhelming sense of loss when I would go places where other mothers took their babies. I didn’t know what was wrong with my boy at the time.

He continued to slowly progress. He sat, he crawled and then he walked—almost on time. At 18 months a new milestone was unturned; he did not talk. I had shown concern to our pediatrician for almost a year at this point, and suddenly the alarms went off. We were assigned a flurry of appointments with doctors, therapists and other specialists. When the pediatrician told me he might need a CT scan, I cried.

There is nothing worse than watching your child struggle while feeling helpless. Truly, there is nothing worse than wondering if something during your pregnancy, some decision you made, some gene you donated, something you are somehow responsible for, caused this. I am a geneticist. I have learned and taught case studies of childhood diseases, perfectly immune. Disease is fascinating until it affects you.

I had an idea about what might be wrong. Although he did not display some of the hallmark features of autism in toddlers—particularly the lack of social smile and disinterest in social interactions—my son did exhibit several others. He didn’t consistently make eye contact. Oftentimes, he didn’t respond to his name. He had strange body contortions and gestures, and he never pointed, waved bye-bye, blew kisses or stacked blocks.

I have cried for two years now. I am slowly coming to terms with this diagnosis. Some days are better than others. I do worry: that he will drown in the bath or that he will run with abandon into a busy street. Mostly I worry that he won’t be happy when he grows up. I try to divert myself from these statistics I’ve read in journals. Where would we be if there was no hope?

As for the present, my boy likes books, the alphabet and numbers. I’m learning how he communicates. I’m learning the beauty of his enigma—and how everything about him is pure: he has no motivation to be otherwise.

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