As she emerged into this world, wailing her little lungs out, Cristina Jailyn gazed upon my anxiety-riddled face with those piercing green eyes of hers. An overwhelming sense of tranquility surpassed the irritating sounds of those monitors in the delivery room as I said “hi” to my daughter for the very first time.
As if she already knew who I was, the sound of my voice eased her fears as I found my finger in the grasps of her tiny little hand. I gently kissed her forehead and whispered the same words I uttered onto my son when he was born: “You are my world and I will love you for the rest of your existence.”
Staring into her eyes, I knew she was perfection wrapped up in a little blanket, holding my heart in one hand while holding the world in the other.
Nearly a year later, I had come to miss those eyes of hers since she would seldom look directly at me. Mere hugs were nearly impossible as she would frantically attempt to evade my embrace because it seemed like it caused her immense pain. I attributed this strange behavior to my prolonged absence because of my exhausting battle with stomach cancer. I thought that maybe I needed to earn my daughter’s love once again.
However, my wife would endure the same heartbreaking avoidance behavior. Cristina would never respond to her name or call us by our names. Her vocabulary was limited to only five words which would cause her to resort to grunting and yelling. She could not point to what she desired, forcing us to play the “guessing game,” and her tantrums became increasing exaggerated.
Doctors initially thought that maybe she had a hearing deficit resulting from frequent ear infections but upon further in depth examination, her hearing appeared to be normal. We were completely perplexed and exhausted, not understanding what was happening to our daughter. Her behavior worsened, becoming aggressive and violent. I was losing my little girl.
Finally, on a normal work day in my school, I was just about to lock my classroom door as my cell phone started to ring. I ignored the call since it was during school hours but moments later, a text came through from my wife. It read, “Cristina is Autistic.”
That word echoed through my brain, ricocheting up and down my spine causing a wave of weakness. I slowly kneeled onto the floor and called my wife. On the other end of the line, I heard the voice of a mother overcome with sadness muster the strength to reiterate that our daughter is autistic.
That night I held my daughter and kissed her forehead as she slept in my arms. I whispered in her ears, “I know my little Cristina is in there, somewhere.” I, along with my wife, vowed to get her the best help possible.
Cristina now receives six days of intensive two- to three-hour therapy sessions by four separate therapists. Nearly 3 years old, Cristina now has a vocabulary of 50 words, can count to 10, gives hugs and kisses, and just recently learned her name as well as ours. We are working on two- to three-word phrases which has been stressful but rewarding.
Last night, I tucked my daughter into her bed and told her “goodnight, honey” to which she replied “good night, Papi.” I went to my wife with tears in my eyes and told her, “She’s beginning to understand.”
Although autistic, my Cristina is still perfection, holding my heart in one hand and her bright future in the other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christopher Astacio is an educator and father of two.