Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
When her son—conceived with an anonymous sperm donor—turned out to have a mild form of autism, Gwenyth Jackaway went on the Internet and befriended other mothers whose children shared the same biological father and, in a few cases, eerily similar diagnoses. Our author reports on the reliability (or not) of sperm banks, the vital importance of the Donor Sibling Registry, and—this is the good part—a whole new kind of extended family.
When Gwenyth Jackaway and Theresa Pergola met for the first time two years ago, they quickly spotted the resemblances among their children.
Gwenyth's son, Dylan, was 3, and Theresa's triplets, Anna, Anthony, and Joseph, 2. The mothers saw right off that Anthony and Dylan have the same full lips; Dylan and Joseph, broad foreheads and wide-set eyes. As the kids played in her living room, Theresa noticed the three boys bent over their toys in the same posture, backs curved at a similar angle.
Then Gwenyth pointed out more unsettling resemblances between Joseph and Dylan. Neither made much eye contact. And both were absorbed by letters and numbers, unlike Anna and Anthony. Gwenyth also noticed that when all four kids took off their shoes to run around the dining room table, Joseph was walking on his toes, a telltale marker of autism in young children.
Dylan, Anthony, Joseph, and Anna share the same father—Donor X from the California Cryobank, which is among the largest sperm repositories in the world. (The donor's number is being masked at the request of one of the mothers in this story.) At 2, Dylan tested on the autistic spectrum. Two years later, doctors refined the diagnosis to a form of autism called Asperger's syndrome, which means that while he is highly intelligent, unlike many autistic children who suffer from some degree of mental retardation, he shares some of the classic traits of the disorder—social and communication impairments and narrow interests. When Dylan was a baby, he didn't look at Gwenyth. When he learned to talk, he used words only to identify objects rather than communicating wants or feelings, or calling "Mama." As a toddler he could spend hours watching spinning toys, and at around age 3 he became obsessive about subway maps and lists of words and numbers, which still decorate every wall of his room.
Gwenyth,who grew up in a small family, first contacted Theresa out of a longing for Dylan to be part of a larger community. Once the women connected through a Web site called the Donor Sibling Registry, Gwenyth quickly opened up about her son's autism. Theresa had just begun to notice troubling signs in Joseph. He was 22 months old, and his speech seemed to be shrinking rather than growing. Unlike his brother and sister, he didn't respond when his name was called. And he regularly lined up blocks, videotapes—anything he could. Still, Theresa wasn't sure. "I was a little bit in denial," she said recently. "I kept going back and forth in my head on whether it was really true."
A week after the two mothers hung up the phone, Gwenyth and Dylan were on a train from New York City out to Long Island to visit Theresa and crew in the suburbs. The living room of their three-bedroom Nassau County home, which Theresa shares with her mother and sister, is covered with portraits of the triplets at 9 months. When Theresa broached her fears about Joseph's development, Gwenyth responded by talking about the traits Joseph and Dylan seemed to have in common—and stressed the benefits that early diagnosis and specialized therapy were having for her son. Theresa couldn't help feeling defensive. "She was being gentle, but it was definitely scary," she remembers.
About a month later, prompted by her own questions and Gwenyth's observations, Theresa had Joseph tested. He, like Dylan, received a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. Theresa didn't wait to call Gwenyth. She cried, and Gwenyth comforted her, and then they got down to business and talked about how to navigate the special education system to get Joseph the help he needed.
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