This guest post is from Keri Michaelis. She is the mother of W. Foster Michaelis, a 11-year-old boy with Aspergers who just earned the title of 2013 National History Bee Elementary School National Champion.
At 14 months, our oldest son, Foster, mastered a shape sorter unlike any other toddler I’ve ever seen. His favorite activity was to sit patiently in my lap for hours while I read book after book to him. He was obsessed with letters and numbers. At 18 months, he started asking which letters spelled certain words and began sight reading. By the age of 2, he began reading books aloud to me. I was thankful to have been blessed with a smart little boy who always seemed hungry to learn more.
Foster was a happy baby; engaged, silly, a great eater and a great sleeper. At seven months we giggled at his first word – “apple.” As a toddler, he was curious, very busy and a good big brother to his baby brother, Luke. He loved to take his toys apart to see how they worked. We knew we had a very curious child on our hands.
After our family moved across the country, Foster reached the height of his frustration and his words simply could not keep up with his brilliant mind. His baby brother required more of my attention and the world Foster had previously known had been completely turned upside down. He did not seem to enjoy playing with other children his age, only older children or adults who could read with him or teach him something new. He was easily upset by changes in his routine.
We met with our new pediatrician and I expressed my disappointment with Foster’s inability to demonstrate flexibility with his daily activities. I was so happy to have a child with such an intense desire to learn, yet my husband and I found it very hard to discipline Foster in a traditional way. No matter what we tried, it seemed that we just couldn’t keep his irregular tantrums under control. I was desperate to help make him a happier toddler. I scoured the internet, unaware of what I was looking for, but determined to discover a label for what my son was going through with no concrete results. I placed my son’s name on the waiting lists of several Atlanta-area developmental pediatricians and clinics and filled out mountains of paperwork in preparation for our visits. And then I waited.
On one August afternoon before our baby turned three, after a battery of tests and questions and exercises, our new developmental pediatrician delivered the definitive diagnosis: “Your son has Asperger syndrome. He will live with this developmental disability for the rest of his life.”
It was gut-wrenching. My sweet blue-eyed baby boy was not a typical toddler - I knew this - but he had a developmental disability? Autistic, seriously? This couldn’t be.
I went through a period of mourning for Foster’s future. I stayed up night after sleepless night worrying whether or not he would ever attend school with typical peers, go to a birthday party, have his first sleepover, experience the joy of a best friend, play on a sports team, have a girlfriend, go to college, enjoy a career, experience marriage, and even become a parent himself.
Then one morning I stopped feeling sorry for my son and for myself. Asperger’s was our new path. He wasn’t going to die from it. Yes, the path ahead was going to be harder than most, but he was still the same sweet, smart kid and he needed me to make some decisions to make his life the absolute best it could be. I wasn’t the first parent of a kid with Asperger’s. There had to be others out there going through what we were going through. Surely something had to have worked for other kids before him. And if not, I was going to figure it out with some help from the professionals. I dried my tears, took my family members up on their offers to help us in many ways, rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
I worked closely with our developmental pediatrician to develop a therapy plan for our son. At one point, he was involved in twelve different therapies a week – from physical therapy to speech therapy to occupational therapy to hippotherapy to social skills therapy. We met so many amazing therapists along the way who challenged me to think in a different way and helped me understand how to help my son live with his Asperger’s. I got frustrated when our insurance company told us these therapies were not covered by insurance because he hadn’t been in a tragic accident - although he was born with autism. I worked tirelessly to educate his teachers, specialists, friends and family members on how to bring out the best in him, take care of him and set him up for success.
Over the years, Foster has worked so hard to understand how to better succeed with Asperger syndrome. People with Asperger’s are characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication. While he has experienced his share of challenges along the way, he has come so far since his initial diagnosis on the autism spectrum. We have celebrated many victories since his diagnosis, both big and small.
I celebrated when he finally got the hang of potty training, which took him a lot longer than most other boys.
I beamed with pride when Foster graduated from our church preschool, where I was originally told they didn’t support children with autism. His teacher even thanked me for allowing him in her classroom because he taught her so much.
I did a happy dance when he finally got the hang of tying his own shoes and writing his name, which came much later than his other friends at school because of challenges with his fine motor skills.
I was joyful when he held his baby sister for the first time and told her that he would always protect her.
I smiled when he scored his first two-pointer on the basketball team with typical peers.
I was elated when he hugged my Dad for the first time without having to be prompted to do so.
I jumped up and down when he mastered the motor skills necessary to ride his bike without training wheels, despite his physical limitations.
I celebrated when his peers elected him Secretary of Student Council in the 4th grade. He wrote a speech, made posters and the other children voted him into office.
I cheered when he won the Geography Bee for the whole school in 4th and 5th grade and went on to the state finals two years in a row, competing against other typical peers through middle school.
I beamed with pride when he returned from his first week of Boy Scout sleep-away camp and the counselors told me how independent he was.
I cried when he captured the title of 2013 National History Bee Elementary School National Champion. During the competition, students were asked to share an interesting fact about themselves. Foster proudly answered, “I have Asperger’s.”
While we still have a long road ahead with middle school, high school and college, I am proud of my son and his accomplishments. Celebrating his victories up until this point in his life has helped inspire me to look ahead to his future, which looks very bright.
If your child is newly diagnosed, have faith and roll up your sleeves. It is not an easy path, but it is possible with early intervention and a clear plan of action to help your child succeed in many ways, big and small. Take your friends and neighbors and family members up on their offers to help out in any way possible. Educate those around you on how to help your child succeed. Get involved in your child’s life. And celebrate the victories along the way.