My son went missing when he was two years old. His body didn’t go anywhere, but the rest of him did. He disappeared into the mysterious, heart wrenching world of regressive autism. Up until he was 18 months old, our son, Nate, had developed as a typical, happy, bouncing baby boy. He began walking and talking, laughing and engaging with others using his mostly toothless smile and his bright, shining eyes.
But at 18 months, his eyes began to lose their light. He stopped talking. He stopped smiling. He stopped responding to his name. Then, he stopped responding to anyone else in the world around him as he spun off into his own orbit.
Because I had trauma from my own childhood, the trauma of seemingly losing a child to regressive autism sent me into a Post Traumatic Stress tailspin. I knew we had to do something to help. But what?
By the grace of God, a friend of ours had a son with autism, too, and was being helped by Erik Lovaas, an expert in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Although that is the preferred treatment now, it was still controversial back in 2002. It was expensive, and we couldn’t get any funding. So, against the instincts of a mother who feels the need to spend as much time with a two year old as possible, we agreed to have our son have treatment for 40 hours a week.
He would scream and cry for hours during the monthly consultations as his tutoring sessions were adjusted. Then he’d scream and cry during much of the daily tutoring. Then he’d just scream and cry. His torture became mine.
He remained non-verbal yet multi-vocal for more than a year after that. During that time, the only thing he responded to positively was VeggieTales, the cartoon vegetables who teach Bible stories and principles through skits and music. Nate loved them and would spin in circles and dance excitedly on his toes whenever we put in one of the videos. He was obsessed with them, in fact. One day I walked out into the living room to find that he’d written out “VeggieTales” in Lincoln Logs. The next day, he spelled it out in pencils. The day after that, rocks. And so began his first form of communication since his initial disappearance.
One of the VeggieTales characters sings a cheeseburger song and dances about with a cheeseburger on his head. One day after getting Nate a kid’s meal, he took out the cheeseburger and put it on his head and wouldn’t take it off. No amount of coaxing would convince him otherwise. When I took it from him, he screamed until he finally found it in the trash, put it back together (if that’s what you can call it), and put it back on his head.
If you have never been around a child with autism, you may not know just how relentless, stubborn and impossible it can be to coax them into “desirable behaviors.”
So, the cheeseburger remained on Nate’s head until I bought a “fresh one.” I tried a fake cheeseburger, but he wouldn’t go for it. Then I tried several different fake ones. He wouldn’t go for those, either. And, as if any type of shopping or public errands weren’t already difficult enough, whenever I took him to a public place, he insisted on keeping the cheeseburger on his head or else he’d scream the entire time.
I quickly learned that people would rather have you walking around with a kid who has a cheeseburger on his head than a kid screaming bloody murder. Either way, you receive some accusing glares, but the cheeseburger seemed to evoke the lesser of two evils.
Then, God stepped in—through His mercy, grace, and a saleswoman at a barbecue store. Embarrassed as usual, I explained to her why my son was walking around the store with a cheeseburger on his head. She said, “Well, we have a fake cheeseburger. How about that?”
“Oh, no thank you,” I replied. “I’ve tried several of them. He just won’t go for it.”
“But we have a very realistic one. He might like it.” She walked over to one of the barbecues and picked up the most realistic looking fake cheeseburger I’d ever seen (and I had become quite the fake cheeseburger connoisseur). Nate took one look at it, dropped the old cheeseburger, and proudly put his new crown upon his head.
I was flabbergasted, and relieved beyond expression. I asked her how much it cost. She said they didn’t actually sell them, but she’d take care of it. I knew she meant she’d pay for another one. When she insisted I take it for free, I started to cry. And cry. And couldn’t stop.
That might have been the first time I’d been able to cry since first learning of our son’s plight. I truly felt God was watching out for me that day. I felt his hand in my life, as it reached through the frozen, miserable state of PTSD that had left it so difficult for me to feel anything.
All thanks to a stranger’s act of charity and the perfect fake cheeseburger.