This post is from Louise Martling, a mother of a young adult on the autism spectrum.
In 1994, Kent was diagnosis at age three with PDD-NOS at Yale New Haven Hospital. As is often the case with children with autism, his verbal development suddenly halted around the age of 15 months. The few words he had learned disappeared, as though he had never spoken them. Back then, I was told that autism was found in one out of 300 children. He attended a special education preschool in the New Haven school system and received speech therapy. I often wondered if I was ever going to be able to have a conversation with my son. At first he grunted, then babbled and then he echoed everything I asked him, never giving a direct response. He got very creative using his own version of sign language and body language to get his point across. Successful toilet training seemed like a wish and a prayer.
Here’s what Kent has taught me – time and space are very different to kids with autism. They will suddenly “get it” when they are ready. We conquered toileting by age 3 ½ . He learned to tie his shoelaces, and started writing his name by age 7. Thanks to a wonderful 2nd grade teacher and a special education consultant, we found a program called EdMark that teaches “visual learners” how to read by memorizing words and word shapes. From there, we found another wonderful teacher in the 5th grade, who had struggled her whole life with dyslexia and taught Kent her secrets for “decoding words.” None of this happened overnight, and there were many, many individuals who helped along the way, but it happened.
Kent has grown into a wonderful young man… who is autistic… and artistic and musical and loves trains and fishing and still watches Shiny Time Station. On days when I think that his progress has plateaued, I have to remind myself of those days long ago when I wondered if I would ever be able to hold a conversation with him. Our discussions now are direct, focused on the topic at hand, black and white…. no gray areas allowed… but we talk.
Kent was blessed with being able to attend his senior year of high school and two years after that at Riverview School in Sandwich, Mass. He “aged out” of the program in February of 2013. The words “Transition Planning” were thrown around a lot, striking fear into most parents that heard them…myself included. What was going to happen to Kent after school? Would he get a job? Will he have friends? Can he live independently? What will happen to him if I’m not around? So many questions, so few answers.
Fast forward to 1 ½ years later... Kent is 23 and has been hired by Home Depot to work in their Garden Center. He loves to stay busy and feel needed. He sweeps the floors, helps customers with their purchases to their cars and helps move stock. We applied online for this job, and I held my breath when he was called in for an interview. The manager didn’t flinch when I mentioned that Kent was autistic. His comment was “oh, I have a nephew who is autistic” – end of discussion. I sat in on the interview with Kent, trying to keep my Motherly Mouth shut as much as possible. I learned that Home Depot has a “job coach” on staff, not just for my son, but for all new employees. Kent really enjoys the work and is appreciated for his efforts. He came home the other week with a small trophy, a patch to put on his apron and a note from his job coach, thanking him for his hard work. He had just received “the Homer Award.” You should have seen him grin. He was so proud to receive this award.
I don’t know where life is going to lead us. I have met with a “Special Needs” lawyer and put as much into place as I possibly can. Today, I know that Kent isn’t capable of living independently. Down the road….maybe. I’ve also learned that sometimes you have to let things happen and let life evolve. Stay involved and pursue opportunities when they present themselves, but sometimes it just takes patience. There are people out there who we still have to meet. People who could make a huge impact on our lives – and we haven’t met them yet.
So for now, we are going to take it “one day at a time” and “one week at a time” and “one month at a time.” I have a beaming young man wearing a bright orange apron with a Homer Award patch clipped to it, standing before me — and that is more than I could have ever expected 20 years ago.