At 21 months old, identical twin brothers Alex and Jamie were diagnosed with autism. It was 1992, a time when autism was far from a household word, before online autism forums and advocacy groups even existed. Robyn and her husband Allan were heartsick, but determined to find a cure for their sons, and thus their journey into the world of autism began.
But soon it was clear that both Alex and Jamie had severe autism and would most likely not be cured. In Silent Running, Robyn Schneider takes readers on an intimate journey from a double diagnosis of autism, through many years of heartache, to a place of joy. Silent Running is a story of unrelenting love, of parents who never stop chasing after the silver lining, intent on finding happiness for their sons.
And find happiness they do—in running. In Schneider’s moving memoir, readers see Alex and Jamie transformed through running, their lives enriched. And eventually they reach a place where running, rather than autism, defines them. Along the journey, both Robyn and Allan face their own personal challenges. Allan begins running to help manage his symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and Robyn, while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, laces up her own running shoes, determined to run her way to recovery—for her family and for herself. And she hasn’t stopped.
Despite their incredible daily challenges, Alex and Jamie have now run in almost 150 mainstream races, including nine marathons. And Robyn and Allan have been right there, either cheering for or running alongside their sons.
In Silent Running, Robyn Schneider shares her family’s remarkable story of triumph in the face of enormous hurdles, and the passion that has fueled their fight. It is an extraordinary and inspiring story of perseverance and hope, and of never giving up.
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Our Family's Journey to the Finish Line with Autism
By Robyn K. Schneider, Kate Hopper
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Robyn K. Schneider
All rights reserved.
Alie and Jamie were happy babies. They smiled easily and loved to laugh. When I think back on their first year, I see a photograph Allan took when they were newborns: I'm sitting on the couch in our two-bedroom apartment wearing a T-shirt and shorts. I'm a little disheveled, my light brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail. Both boys are in my lap side by side, their tiny heads resting on my left arm. My left hand reaches around to give Jamie his bottle and my right hand holds Alie's bottle.
It wasn't easy — or comfortable — but to me it was the most natural thing in the world. I remember staring down at my sons as they sucked down their bottles, wondering how their lives might unfold. I imagined them as boys playing little league, as teenagers on their first dates, as young men heading off to college. I dreamed that they'd grow up to be best friends.
In those early months I'd strap the boys into our side-by-side double stroller and walk the short distance from our apartment to downtown Great Neck. People always stopped me to exclaim, "Aw, twins!" And I can't count the number of times I heard, "Double the trouble!" That always surprised me. Couldn't they see how delicious my sons were? How lucky I was? I'd smile and respond, "No, double the pleasure!"
Even though we had our share of colicky crying jags and sleepless nights, that first year was infused with joy. A sense of promise followed me everywhere, and I know I will always remember their infancy swathed in the idyllic glow of new love.
I was home with the boys for almost four months, and then we hired a nanny to take care of them when I returned to work. Barbara was a lovely woman originally from Jamaica, and she adored the boys. I was working in a large nonprofit agency, but my office was close enough for me to come home and feed the boys over lunch. Allan's real estate office was close by, as well, so he regularly checked in on them during the day, as did my parents, who lived in nearby East Meadow. We couldn't get enough of those babies.
When they could pull themselves up, they'd stand in their cribs and throw all their stuffed animals out onto the floor, erupting into giggles. They were the dickens, always getting into everything, climbing up on tables and in and out of cupboards. But they were so joyful about their mischief that it was hard not to laugh along with them.
They met all their developmental milestones — rolling over, sitting up, walking — early. And just before their first birthday, I was holding Jamie in the boys' room when he pointed at the huge stuffed bear hanging on the wall and said his first word: "bear!" I yelled to Allan, who was in the other room with Alie, and said, "Come here! Jamie just said his first word!"
We celebrated the boys' first birthday at my parents' house on June 16, 1991 — Father's Day — amid blue and white balloons and Happy Birthday banners. I loved the fact that we could celebrate their birthday on Father's Day. It seemed that they were somehow blessed, sharing the day with Allan and my dad. Allan and I were very close to my parents, and I hoped that Alie and Jamie would grow up to be as close to Allan and me as we were to my mom and dad.
My parents adored Alie and Jamie. My sister Edie had two sons, Eric and Richard, who were 11 and 12 years old, and I know my parents had hoped Allan and I would have children, too. But when Allan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years earlier and began to struggle with fatigue, muscle pain, and headaches, we weren't sure if we should — or could — have children. His first MRI showed a number of lesions on his brain where the myelin sheath around his nerves had been damaged. The doctors explained that prognosis varied from person to person and told him he might develop a relapsing/remitting pattern or simply become progressively worse. Regardless, it would make life unpredictable.
That aspect of the disease — not knowing what lay ahead — alarmed us both. So when we found out I was pregnant — with twins no less! — we were terrified. But that terror quickly turned to joy, and soon neither of us could imagine our lives without Alie and Jamie. We both embraced parenthood with the enthusiasm with which we tackled everything. Their first birthday was filled with friends and family and lots of laughter. The boys messily ate huge pieces of cake, they wrinkled and tore at the colorful wrapping paper on their presents, and they played Ring-Around-the-Rosie with my friends' children, laughing when they all fell down. And they were so attentive, running into our arms when we called their names.
The months following their birthday passed in a blur of activity: we watched the boys chase each other around our apartment in their walkers, we took them for long walks into town or to the park, and we visited friends and my parents and Edie and her family. We had developed a routine, and I was so grateful for the life we'd built. Allan was, for the most part, able to manage his MS symptoms with a medley of vitamins and lots of rest. He experienced a few flare-ups — severe headaches and debilitating fatigue — but luckily they were short-lived and he didn't allow them to dampen our joy. We were, quite simply, happy.
But by 16 months old, the boys' development seemed to have slowed down. Jamie could still say "bear," but that was it, and Alie didn't have any language at all.
"Shouldn't they be talking?" Allan would ask, and I'd feel a tug of worry.
"Do you think they're behind?"
I began watching other toddlers at the park and noticed that some could say a handful of words. Were the boys behind? At their 17-month checkup, I asked our pediatrician if they were on track, and he reassured me that they would talk in their own time. After all, they were twins and had been born five weeks early.
But it wasn't just their lack of speech that began to worry Allan and me; they seemed to have changed. They no longer ran to us when we called their names, they no longer made eye contact, and sometimes they seemed distressed for no reason at all. When I handed them a ball or the stacking musical rings they loved just a month earlier, they now didn't seem interested at all. Sometimes when we were eating dinner, Alie would begin to shriek and squirm in his highchair, scattering food everywhere. Nothing we did calmed him down. And at the park, Jamie would twirl and jump, happily absorbed in his own world. But if he got sand in his shoes, he would dissolve into a fit of crying.
But maybe all of that was normal? They were our only children. We had nothing against which to compare their behavior or development. So what did we know? Maybe that's how toddler boys acted. In retrospect, the signs were clear: they had stopped pointing to things they wanted, they no longer responded to us, and they had started to engage in repetitive behaviors — tapping, jumping, flapping. But even if I had known that this wasn't normal behavior I wouldn't have known what it meant.
Finally, when they were 21 months old, Allan and I decided we should see a specialist. "It can't hurt," Allan said, both of us craving reassurance that our sons were okay.
Our pediatrician agreed that maybe that would be a good idea, and he wrote down the name of a neurologist. I called her office immediately.
It was March, and the day of our appointment was sunny and cold. Dr. Bergtraum's office was only ten minutes away from our apartment, and as I drove there, the boys in their car seats, I was anxious, my stomach in knots. But I was also relieved to be getting an expert's opinion.
I pulled into the parking lot of the office building, slung my purse and the diaper bag over one shoulder, then unbuckled and picked up a boy in each of my arms. Allan and I had gotten used to tag teaming, but I usually took them to their doctor's appointments on my own. There was no sense in both of us taking time off work.
I pushed open the door to Dr. Bergtraum's office and was met by a smiling receptionist. I checked in and then tried to entertain Alie and Jamie with a book while we waited. But neither of them would stay seated, instead running back and forth and jumping, jumping, jumping. Finally I lured them over to a train track that was set up in the corner, but instead of moving the cars back and forth on tracks, they banged them together again and again. The receptionist smiled empathetically. I felt my stomach clench. What is going on with my sons?
Once we were called into Dr. Bergtraum's office, I situated the boys on the floor with toys and settled myself in the chair opposite her desk. I had dressed the boys in different colored shirts and pants to be sure the doctor could tell them apart, but I needn't have worried. They were each fixated on their own thing. Within seconds, Jamie was up, heading for her file cabinet, opening and closing a drawer: rattle, slam. Rattle, slam. Alie crawled under her desk and then was out again, in and out, moving, always moving. Neither one of them responded to the doctor when she said their names. Is this normal? I wondered. Then, No, they're fine. They're just active boys.
Dr. Bergtraum seemed immune to the chaos the boys were causing around her. She straightened her suit coat and smiled, asking me quietly about my pregnancy, the birth. I answered her, explaining that the twin pregnancy had been a surprise but that I hadn't had any complications. She asked about the boys' attention spans, and I motioned toward them. "They fixate on things like this, but it's hard to get them to stay focused on a book or a game. They're always moving," I said, my voice suddenly shaky, almost a whisper. There was something about the questions, her calm voice, the way that she looked at the boys that unnerved me. Something must be wrong.
Dr. Bergtraum nodded her head and took notes as I spoke. Then she leaned back in her chair and watched the boys silently for two minutes, four, six. I watched her watch them and thought, That's it? Aren't you going to say anything else?
Finally she said evenly, "The boys have a language delay with autistic characteristics."
The gray walls of her office slanted, closing in on me. My ears buzzed. My chest seemed to compress, pressing the air from my lungs. I didn't even know what autistic meant; it was 1992, and people weren't talking about autism. But I knew it couldn't be good. Finally I said, "What's autistic?"
What did she say then? Something about a neurological disorder, about brain development. But it was hard for me to focus, to decipher her words. I wanted to pick up the boys and flee. As if I could outrun the diagnosis, protect us from what lay ahead.
Dr. Bergtraum probably delivered this kind of news all the time, and I wondered how she could stand it. She pursed her lips as she wrote down the diagnosis for me — language delay with autistic characteristics. She also listed a few agencies to contact and said the boys would need early intervention. I knew, in that moment, that my life was about to change forever.
In the parking lot I took deep breaths, letting the cold sting my lungs as I buckled the boys into their car seats. Breathe. Everything is going to be fine. But when I slid into the driver's seat, my hands were trembling. Alie began thrashing in his car seat, so I turned the key in the ignition. I can't start crying now. I just have to get home. I just need to get my boys home.
When we got to our apartment building I rushed to the elevator with a boy clutched in each arm, hoping I wouldn't see any of our neighbors, especially my friend Caren, who also lived there. Caren and I had been friends as kids but had lost touch until Allan and I moved into the apartment building. She had two sons, who were older than Alie and Jamie, and she'd given us tons of hand-me-down clothes for the boys. We now chatted regularly, and if she saw me, she'd know something was wrong. And what would I say? How could I describe the way my life had just changed when I didn't even understand it?
Thankfully, we didn't run into anyone. Back in the apartment, I strapped Alie and Jamie into their walkers and piled toys on their trays, hoping to keep them entertained. Then I dialed Allan's work number. For the last ten years Allan had been selling real estate on Long Island, and I hoped he'd be at his desk rather than out showing property. I held my breath until he picked up the phone.
"Hello," he said.
"You have to come home now." Suddenly, I was crying and I couldn't stop.
"Are the boys okay?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, but that was all I could manage.
"I'm on my way." I didn't ordinarily break down like that, so he knew it was bad.
Then I collapsed on the kitchen floor and cried, my head in my hands. How could this be happening? They're just babies, so innocent. I started to pray: please, please, God, help me. Please help my babies. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe they're fine. From the other room, I could hear the banging of toys on the boys' walker trays. Bang. Bang. Bang.
I glanced up at a photograph of Alie and Jamie that was propped on the dining room shelf. In it, they wore identical red and white outfits while lying on a blanket facing each other, propped on their elbows. A mirror image. They were smiling. They were looking into each other's eyes. Why weren't they doing that now? What went wrong?
Suddenly, I needed to hear my parents' voices. They had always been my biggest supporters. I picked up the phone again and dialed their number.
"Hello, hello, hello!" Dad answered, full of exuberance, as always.
Everything came rushing out: the questions Dr. Bergtraum asked, the way she watched the boys, the diagnosis. Dad asked what was next and I told him about the list of specialists.
"Robyn, listen to me. I promise you we will get through this," he said resolutely.
And in that moment I knew that somehow we would. Dad was my rock, and if he said we'd get through it, we would. He had always been unflappable, a problem solver, and I knew he would be able to help us navigate this nightmare.
Then my mom was on the phone. "Oh Rob," she said. Her voice caught. Mom and I were very close, and I knew she could feel my pain. I started to cry again. But Mom said, "It's going to be okay. We're here for you. Whatever you need, whatever the boys need. It's going to be okay." Mom had been a special education teacher in Long Island public schools for over 15 years, so even though she surely understood the gravity of the diagnosis and what it meant for us, she didn't let on.
"We're coming right over," she said.
"Thank you," I managed.
After I said good-bye to my mom, I stared at the phone in my hand and then at the sheet of paper Dr. Bergtraum had given me. I could hear the wheels of the boys' walkers clicking in the living room. Then they both began to whine loudly. Everything that had been important to me before — home, work, my new car, shopping for clothes for the boys — seemed to fall away. All that mattered now was my sons, my angels. And their future. I took a deep breath. I have to be strong, I thought. They will be okay. They have to be okay. So I dialed the first number and, with a halting voice, requested an appointment for an evaluation.
When I hung up, the boys were crying, and I knew they were done with their walkers. I stood up, and, even though I felt hopeless and terrified by the way our lives seemed to be unraveling, and even though I didn't want to believe that they were autistic — whatever that was — I loved my boys with all my heart, and I'd do anything for them. Whatever this was, I'd fix it.
In the living room, I pulled them from the confines of their walkers and hugged their squirming bodies to my chest. I sat down with them on the couch and kissed their soft faces and ran my fingers through their fine, dark curls. They tried to wiggle free, but I held them more tightly. Over and over again I said, I love you. Mommy loves you. I love you so much.
Excerpted from Silent Running by Robyn K. Schneider, Kate Hopper. Copyright © 2015 Robyn K. Schneider. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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