Byline: CHARLOTTE MOORE
FOURTEEN years ago, I gave birth to the most intelligent, handsome and charming child who ever drew breath.
All mothers believe this about their firstborns. But my absurd pride was reinforced by family, friends and even health professionals who were all struck by George's accelerated progress.
He smiled at three weeks, handled toys at eight weeks, enjoyed stories at three months. He stood alone at seven months, and took his first unaided steps on the day he was nine months old. He knew all his letters and colours at 20 months, and by two he could sing dozens of songs. He was happy, healthy and - it seemed - extremely sociable.
If I could have glimpsed his future, I would not have believed what I saw.
George now attends a special school. He can read and write, but only just.
It's most unlikely that he'll ever sustain a job or a relationship, or lead any kind of independent life. George is autistic. So is his younger brother Sam.
Parents of autistic children start off in the belief that they have a normally developing child.
There's no blood test to identify autism, no chromosome analysis, no prenatal screening. You may spend several years parenting an autistic child burdened with false beliefs and expectations.
It's easy to see why so many parents feel that their adored child has been "lost" to autism. Then, some newspapers carry stories of apparently miraculous treatments and there are websites dedicated to "cures". Parents of a newly diagnosed child are overwhelmed with information and underwhelmed with practical help.
Many parents, desperate to do something for their child, embark on a personal quest for the Holy Grail of a "cure", often at huge financial and emotional cost.
I don't believe in a cure. These days, I wouldn't even want one.
Neither do I believe that my sons were ever "normal". I believe both were born autistic, and will remain so. But it's such a complex condition that it's hard to identify it in young children. George's early development showed the classic autistic pattern of peaks and troughs of ability, but we were so dazzled by his talents that we glossed over the problems.
George was diagnosed when he was four. You might have thought I'd have been quick to spot the signs in Sam, 22 months his junior, but Sam was - and is - very different from George.
George was nervy, hyper, restlessly seeking stimulus of every kind. Sam was placid, low-key, a little unresponsive. But he was such a jolly, laid-back baby that it was impossible to feel anxious about him. Now aged 12, he is profoundly autistic, with severe learning difficulties.
All autists show the core "triad of impairments" - impaired communication, imagination and social interaction. But the symptoms manifest themselves in hugely varying ways. "Impaired communication", for instance, ranges from no language at all, to the child who "talks like a dictionary" but can't understand irony or jokes.
Both boys want to come with me to the shop: George, the more "able", says: "Mum, I would look splendid in the car going with you to Hastings. …