Few things invoke the kind of fear parents experience when they find out there is something wrong with their child. Especially when it seems as if we have no control over the situation. There’s no medication for autism, so when that diagnosis was made final, I went through a grieving process of sorts. I grieved for the typical childhood my son wouldn’t have, and for all of the things he would miss out on in his life.
And after I grieved . . . I got to work. I was shocked to discover that one in 88 children was diagnosed with autism. Today that statistic is one in 68.
Our family is fortunate enough to live in a school district that has a preschool program, so I immediately looked into getting my son evaluated. The decision to start intervention strategies at the age of three has made all of the difference in our autism story. I’ll begin by telling you that today my son is completely mainstreamed into a general education classroom, and is so high functioning that you almost can’t tell he even has autism. I know that our results aren’t normal, but my greatest wish is that they give you hope if you know or suspect your child is on the spectrum.
When my youngest son was three years old, he was nonverbal and noncompliant. Running errands like grocery shopping earned me some very judgmental looks and one verbal confrontation from someone wanting to know why I allowed my child to misbehave in public.
I initially began my intervention with speech testing through our local school district. They let me know that while indeed my son had speech concerns and qualified for services, his needs went beyond mere speech therapy. His first placement was into a PPCD (Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities) classroom. His PPCD teacher quickly let me know she was “done” with him, and that he needed services beyond what she could provide. Having a teacher tell you she’s “done” with your child is devastating, but I used that anger and disappointment to fight harder for him. He was next placed into a pre-kindergarten STACC (Structured Teaching Alternative Communication Classroom).
STACC focuses heavily on teaching basic communication skills. His teachers were phenomenal and soon became like family to us. In their care, my son learned how to communicate his basic needs to us. He started using words and short phrases. His temperament improved. He also received occupational therapy (OT) through the school district to help with his sensory needs and to improve his fine and gross motor skills.
When he started kindergarten, he still wasn’t speaking much, and he continued in the STACC, but he did spend some time in the general education classroom as well. Having the balance between time with typically developing peers and intense, small-group specialized instruction meant that educators were completely on top of every nuance of his education.
By the time he started first grade, he was talking in complete sentences and was, for the most part, able to communicate like most of his peers. He would still have tantrums and still lacked the ability to control sensory input, but he was unrecognizable from the child who entered the program at three years old. He still received OT and speech services, but it became increasingly difficult to formulate new goals for him because he was flying through his goals so quickly.
In third grade, he was completely mainstreamed with the exception of a short pullout time each day. He was transitioned to the STARS (Structured Teaching Alternative Resource Setting) program where he was still monitored by specialists and where he still received individualized instruction, but now that instruction was focused on social interactions and social skills.
Third grade is when my son discovered his voice. He is now a non-stop talker. I jokingly tell people that he’s making up for all of his quiet years. He is a strong advocate for social justice. He still struggles to make friends, but he is a straight-A student in a mainstream fifth grade classroom. I talk to my son about his autism. I want him to know that there are reasons why his brain sometimes processes situations differently. He is very wise, and often asks if his reactions are because of his autism.
I know how lucky we are. I know that not everyone’s autism story is as successful as ours, but I can say that early intervention is probably the single most important thing you can do for any child with any developmental delays. If your child shows signs of autism, please consider seeing a developmental pediatrician for evaluation. Check with your local school district. Many of them offer testing for speech services, and some offer preschool services for children with developmental delays as young as three years of age. Familiarize yourself with your child’s educational rights, with individualized education plans, and with Section 504 to ensure your child’s needs are being met when he or she starts school.
I encourage you to not let concerns about labels inhibit you from getting your child the help he or she needs. The earlier you intervene, the better chance your child has of overcoming developmental delays and learning coping strategies that give the best shot at the most fulfilling life possible.