Constant vigilance, unconditional love
Fifteen-year-old Sean Walsh paces in a robotic loop around the lower level of his family’s Camelot Drive, Howell, home. He circles the table in the family’s great room, pauses by his sister Shannon, then punches her in the head.
Only minutes later, Sean hugs his mother Michelle and his 17- year-old sister. He tussles with his father, Howell Mayor Robert F. Walsh, and laughs.
“He’s very affectionate, on his terms,” Michelle Walsh said. “When he wants to give you a hug and a kiss, he’ll come right over. But he’s touch sensitive. If you grab him, he gets very upset.”
This is the unpredictable world of autism, where a child’s behavior can change as quickly as a traffic light. It is a world the Walsh family has learned to navigate, although not always easily.
“I turned my back for five seconds,” he said. “He was on the mat with the two wrestlers.”
The family’s comfortable twostory home is armed with bells and bolts. The bells warn the family if Sean tries to go outside. The bolts on the laundry room and the computer room prevent the boy from obsessively washing clothes and using the computer. The wall near the stairway on the second floor has a jagged hole, a remnant of one of Sean’s “meltdowns.”
“He’s very good with me,” Walsh said, “but then again, I can also put him in a headlock.”
Sean Walsh was born at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Neptune, in August 1994, after a normal pregnancy.
He was Bob and Michelle Walsh’s first son, born after their daughters, Nicole, now 19, and Shannon, now 17. But the couple would have been happy no matter what the baby’s sex was.
“What God gave us was good enough for us,” Walsh said.
First signs of trouble
Sean developed normally for the first 16 months of his life, but all that changed one day when the toddler developed a 105-degree fever and began having seizures.
Walsh believes his son’s condition is directly related to the measles/mumps/rubella vaccines the boy received shortly before the fever and seizures occurred.
“I don’t care what studies they show,” the mayor said. “I think it was the measles shots. He had a 105-degree fever, then he had seizures.”
At first the seizures were mild — the baby would stiffen and stare. Then they progressed to more severe infantile spasms. Their son began to change before their eyes, his mother said.
“He did have words before the seizures,” his mother said. “He stopped responding. There was no eye contact anymore.”
Sean was diagnosed with autism shortly after turning 2 years old.
“I think I knew it,” Michelle said. “I was more upset when he was having infantile spasms.”
“I was worried,” said Walsh, who wore a T-shirt with the words “Always my hero, my son,” printed on it. “I was worried more for my wife and kids. I was worried about how my wife would take it. I knew how tough it would be emotionally and mentally on my wife.”
The little boy continued to regress. He was in diapers until he was 6 years old.
Today Sean is a teenager his father jokingly calls “Hercules unchained.”
Sean does communicate. Part of his speech is ecolalia, where he echoes what others are saying. But he also responds to direct questions.
“What do you order at the Chapter House, Sean?” his mother asked.
“Grilled cheese, nachos,” the boy replied.
“Sean, who’s the mayor of Howell Township?” Walsh said loudly.
“Bob Walsh,” his son replied. “Who’s the deputy mayor?” “Sean Walsh,” the boy said.
The biggest challenge with Sean is what the family calls his meltdowns, periods of anger where he loses control.
One of the worst happened during a trip to Walt Disney World a few years ago. Sean and the family had just gotten off a ride that may have overstimulated him.
“He hit a woman,” Walsh said. “I had to get him out of there, had to bring him into an alley. He was so out of control. I had to have Michelle go get the car.”
The boy kicked his father. Walsh was sore, swollen and covered with bruises the next day.
“That’s the hardest part,” said Shannon, who admits to being scared at times. “Sometimes you don’t see it coming. He’ll be perfectly fine and then … .”
One day Sean had a tantrum at home when neither of her parents was there.
“I had to lock myself in my room,” she said.
Michelle is not afraid of her son, but does get nervous if she has to take him out by herself.
“I’m never scared of him,” his father said. “I’m scared for him.”
The couple tries to give the boy as normal a life as possible. Walsh takes him to Big City Bagels every Saturday morning. He goes with the family on social outings. Family and friends are used to his behavior, Walsh says.
“He’s been a godsend to my daughters’ friends, how they have been introduced to a special-needs child,” Walsh said.
The Walshes credit their family and friends with creating a support system that enables them to keep their son home.
“We have had a lot of extra help,” he said. “It takes a community to raise a special-needs child. A lot of different people help him at different times.”
Michelle first put her son on a school bus at the age of 3. The boy went through the Howell school system through eighth grade. He now attends a special school outside of Howell.
“When he had to transition to high school, they didn’t have a program for him [locally],” she said. “He loves going to school. He had a formal last Friday. He danced for two hours.”
Bob and Michelle Walsh know that raising a special-needs child can strain a marriage. Just not their marriage.
“It’s actually helped our marriage,” Michelle said. “It’s brought us closer together. We’re there for each other. We do balance each other out. When he’s at his limit, I’m OK. When I’m at my limit, he’s OK.”
“We are committed to our marriage and our children,” Walsh said. “It puts some emotional stress on us as individuals. I don’t think it’s harmed our marriage in any way.”
But he worries about his son growing older.
“How little services there are for special-needs adults,” Walsh said. “When I see the greed that is so prevalent in the United States, people are so much about themselves and what they want and not for those in need.”
But there will be no group home in Sean Walsh’s future. His sisters are adamant about that, Shannon said.
“When my parents can’t have him anymore, we’ll take him,” she said. “We take our brother, period.”
What would his parents like people to know about dealing with an autistic person?
“There is a person inside that is like everybody else,” Michelle said. They have a hard time communicating what’s going on. People should be a little more understanding when they see an autistic person.”
Nicole, 19, is away at college. She wrote a poem a few years ago titled “My Brother.” The first stanza reads:
“My brother, Sean, is different from you and me,
“And in our family he was meant to be.
“For the rest of his life in his own world he is trapped,
“Sean is utterly unique, he is handicapped.”
“One of my friends said to me, ‘You’ve got a child for life,’ ” Bob Walsh recalled. “That’s not such a bad thing.”
Contact Patricia A. Miller at email@example.com.