This is the second of an ongoing series of posts. The first part can be found here.
Mimi could only rely on herself in raising her two boys in the early 1970’s.
Her young son George would not receive the autism diagnosis for many years.
George could read and tell her how to get someplace, but, she relayed, “I could not potty-train him or keep him from hitting himself.” George would sit on the toilet and giggle, while Mimi tried to teach him what to do. After a period of time with no performance, the young mother would end up giggling too. She would finally give up and put him in disposable diapers, which were fairly new on the market at the time. It was just easier.
George also was a “runner.” He snuck out of the house and visited neighbors’ homes where they let him explore. Fortunately, everyone in the neighborhood knew George and looked out for him, ensuring that he got safely home.
Some of his disappearances were a little more frightening. George loved to go to the grocery store, and of course he knew how to get there. He had been wanting to go for a couple of days. Since Mimi didn’t drive, she told him one day that they would need to wait until Dad got home. While Mimi was in the back yard hanging laundry, George disappeared.
His brother did not know where he was. A search of the neighborhood was fruitless so the neighbors banded together to find him. George was found running down the center of a busy road, on his way to the grocery store. He did not want to wait for his dad to get home.
Mimi feels so lucky that every time George eloped, whether at her home or when he was in the care of others, he was always found by someone who knew him.
Everything began to change one Fourth of July when George was about seven or eight. John was passed out in the house and Mimi and the boys went to the back yard to play in the old metal sandbox. She noticed that there were some bees around the sandbox, so she decided to move it to another location. As she pulled the sandbox away, yellow jackets swarmed out from underneath.
“Stand still, boys! Don’t move!”
James froze, but George ran. The yellow jackets swarmed after him. They were all over his body. Mimi ignored the pain from the insects caught in her own hair and stinging her on the head. She grabbed George and carried him into the house, calling for John to help. He did not awaken.
She was on her own as she stripped the clothes off of George, dealt with the bees, and put him in the bathtub. That accomplished she called the family doctor, who instructed her to watch him carefully for the remainder of the day.
That evening George’s breathing started to become labored. Mimi still could not rouse John and she did not drive. She asked a neighbor to take her and the boys to the hospital, and she called her sister to meet her there to get James.
The doctors treated George with antihistamine shots but the ordeal resulted in George getting pneumonia. He was in the hospital for a week with Mimi constantly at his side because she knew that George would not be able to communicate with the hospital staff.
It was during that stay that one of the doctors talked to Mimi about her son and arranged for a full evaluation at a local children’s hospital. Mimi said that she knew something was wrong, “but I needed something to be said to me.” A long and arduous journey began.
This was in the early 1970’s.
There were some doctors who were noticing what they called “autistic behaviors” in children with whom they were working.
Mimi, in her search for answers about George had read a book, whose name or author she cannot remember, describing these behaviors.
She said that after reading this book, “I knew in my heart he was autistic.”
The author of the book she read subscribed to a theory popular at the time, that autism was caused by cold, unfeeling mothers, who were labeled as “refrigerator moms.” Mimi remembered the closeness she felt for George from the time she nursed him until the present, and knew that she was not cold and unfeeling, but everything else in the book described her son. When she took George to the hospital for evaluation, Mimi fully expected a diagnosis of autism, and steeled herself to be called a refrigerator mom.
But things would not be this straightforward for Mimi and George.
(I interviewed a woman, whom I call Mimi here, in 2017. Her son “George” is now in his fifties. More of their story will follow in future posts. You can also read a little about Mimi here.)