Chances are you probably don’t know me or know my son, Callum. This is highly likely. But chances are that you do know someone with autism.
This is the story of how my son fell down a long dark hole, and how Elephants brought him back.
The hole was not a real hole as we are used to thinking of holes, but it was just as scary, just as real. Parents of children with autism or disabilities know this hole well. It’s the precise depth their hearts plunge when they learn that their child has an obstacle to thriving.
My first sense of my son’s diagnosis was the day my bouncing baby boy “faded” behind the eyes.
The Fall into Autism
He had always been different from his twin brother who was the paradigm of babbling cheerfulness. He was not as interested in people as his twin, and when people took interest in him, he was not so responsive. He smiled less and played with toys less. In spite of that, I felt I understood him. He would look at me with those starry eyes and my heart would fill with the peace and joy parents have the gift of knowing.
Then, suddenly, that ended. That peace went away. At about four months, Callum would not look at me, even when feeding him. I did not exist.
It wasn’t a fluke. This sudden disengagement from me persisted. More and more I felt a gap widen between him and me. We rejoiced when he gained skills and were bewildered when he lost them completely two or three months later. His symptoms were so prominent that when I spoke with his Nurse about the possibility of autism at 10 months old, she gave me the serious and reassuring nod that her thoughts had been the same.
I sat on the floor of my living room, staring at the naked back of my son. After calling his name several times, he had not responded. He had not even stirred. My calls to specialists seemed just as unresponsive, I was met with two year waiting lists and waiting lists for waiting lists. I was alone and a canyon lay between me and my son. I did not understand him, I did not know him much beyond the fact that he liked bananas.
“Breakthrough came in the form of a smile…”
Breakthrough came in the form of a smile. One day while doing errands, I passed my son sitting in his usual space on the carpet. He had a smile on his face. A real, genuine, elated smile. In his hand there was a book with a picture of an elephant. Over the next few weeks we began to notice a pattern of Callum smiling when he saw elephants or if something reminded him of elephants.
Prior to that, Callum’s favorite “toy” was not a toy at all but a springy cord of a cell phone car charger. If we took it from him, he would scream wildly. We suddenly realized that the cord reminded him of an elephant trunk.
An idea dawned on me. As best I could, I drew a picture of an elephant with floppy ears, jolly cheeks, a goofy smile and a silly trunk. My son caught notice and glanced over my shoulder.
His face broke into a smile. Then…he looked at me. His dark beautiful eyes met my own and…Contact. It was like NASA getting a signal from a spacecraft they thought they’d lost.
The days and years that have followed have had triumphs and moments that feel like non-triumphs. Elephants have connected them together.
Toothbrushing was a battleground every night punctuated by the screams of a child that felt threatened until I drew a picture of our silly elephant brushing his teeth. Even now, at 10 years old Callum hates brushing his teeth. He’ll do it however in exchange for a story that I make up for him, a story with an Elephant as the main character.
Another Kind of Language
Callum did not speak until he was nearly five, but began a conversation with us through Elephants. His need to fill his world with them gave him the drive to master a pencil, a paintbrush, a marker and to place Elephants in every part of his life. Heaven forbid he run out of paper, our walls would have elephants marching down them.
His elephants display feelings like mischief, dismay, whimsy and joy and while Callum’s face often remains expressionless, the elephants have told us of an amazing world inside of him where he notices and experiences every emotion that we have. It’s been a journey of hope, wonder, and magic. He has his own FaceBook page and I invite you to connect with him and enjoy his artwork there.
Now Callum speaks, although for the most part what he talks to us about is elephants, animals, and conservation. He is still every bit autistic. He still shows traits that sometimes make us feel like he lives in one world and we live in a less important one.
There’s another layer of almost mystical connection to our story… I believe Elephants helped me to see the full depth and complexity of my child’s personality. Seeing his personality has allowed him to find more ways of expressing it. I feel, too, that Elephants have sent me a message. There has been a special sort of parallel between what we know of Elephants, and what we are coming to know of autism.
Over the years I’ve come to learn an awful lot about these quiet, gentle creatures and about the bonds they share with each other. Elephants are the strongest of all land animals but will die in a matter of days of a broken heart. Their familial relationships are essential to who they are. Only close watch of these magnificent creatures has revealed a world where Elephants feel feelings every bit as complex and varied as humans do. I felt that every day my son appeared to reject me, the elephants told me how much he needed me, how much he loved and wanted me. It helped me to keep the faith and to be a bridge for him.
Every advance made by myself or by the wonderful teachers and therapists Callum eventually was exposed to came on the back of an Elephant. His love of them showed us a way and then love built a bridge.
“No one person can save the elephants or help a child with autism to thrive.”
Learning about Elephants has taken my family down a new path, one that is concerned for the future of these gentle, incredible giants. The survival of this species is entirely dependent on one that experiences its own family bonds just as deeply: ours. The power to act is now, the time to act is now. No one person can save the elephants or help a child with autism to thrive. We must act as a herd.
One day my son drew a picture of a baby elephant that reminds me so much of what an Elephant needs and what a human needs. The baby elephant sat under starlight beside his mother. In his pokey child’s handwriting he wrote these words: “He loved his mother and he was free.”
If you’re facing a wall that you can’t seem to break through and you’re trying to reach your child, I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. I’m here to tell you that it can get better and when the way seems impossible to pass, look for help, find your herd, and take creative leaps.
So in conclusion…one day my son fell down a great big hole and he came back to my arms raised up on an Elephant’s trunk. No matter who you are, no matter what the story, we are all connected and looking to connect. We need each other, no matter how large or how small.
And the Elephants need us.
Do you have a child with autism? What ways have you found to connect? Share your story: we’re all Ears.
Melanie Stormm is a Marketing Writer, Musician, and Mother. She is a Merciless Feeder-of-Food and believes the world can be healed with tarot cards and cookies.
View Callum’s artwork at www.callum-elephants.com
Connect with Callum and Melanie at www.facebook.com/callumelephants
Get engaged with Elephants at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org