April is Autism Awareness Month, which I assume you know about right now because of the front page feature story.
Since taking over as editor more than 6 months ago now, I’ve noticed that time really does fly when you are constantly busy. Remembering to slow down and practice patience has helped me though the transition, and I can thank autism for that.
No, I am not on the spectrum (though I have a pretty strong case of ADHD). However, my eldest daughter, now a 14-year-old high school freshman, was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not otherwise Specified when she was just two. PDD-NOS has an interesting position on the Autism Spectrum Disorder map. Basically, she had all sorts of symptoms and signs, but not enough to fall into one of the main categories, like Asperger’s or Classic Autism.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a hard condition to overcome.
Her mother and I started noticing signs of her mental and social development being different than some other children her age. Because we had her young (we were in our early 20s), Perla only had occasional play dates because we didn’t have many friends with kids her age. We balked a bit early on with the lower social development, and a couple of pediatricians were also reluctant to give us clearance to see a specialist.
By 2-years-old, Perla’s autistic signs were checking nearly all the boxes on the “what to watch for,” which included a lack of speech.
In the first appointment at Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP) in Madison, the specialists there didn’t take long before jumping right in and telling us our fears were not misguided. We set up a plan with them, and for several months we would take our daughter up to Madison for social group activities at WEAP, which we tried to make special by getting ice cream or going to the Henry Vilas Zoo each trip.
It wasn’t long before we were able to get Perla into Monroe’s 3K early education program at Parkside School with Mrs. Neuenschwander and her staff of helpers and volunteers, like Ms. Durst, Mrs. Mosher and Mrs. Ziegler.
Before 3K, Perla struggled with speech, just finished potty training and would only drink out of a bottle (be it juice, water, tea or milk). She would play near kids at the park, but never with them. She understood us when we talked to her, but her speech was so far behind it was like an 15- to 18-month-old babbling. She spent the first two years of her life hardly sleeping, which meant a lot of screams and crying that made it hard for either of us to sleep as well.
She had sensory issues, where loud sounds, getting her hair brushed or fingernails clipped led to almost violent outbursts. I lost a digital camera attempting to record a tantrum once for a doctor. And while some of that may sound sort of par for the course for some kids, with her it was a 1-2 hour screaming temper tantrum for the entire neighborhood to hear.
By the time she was 2, I swore off ever having any more children (narrator: he had more children).
Her first week at Parkside she wouldn’t come out from hiding under the table, but by the end of the school year her she was a social chatterbox and many of her sensory issues had subsided — we were able to clip her nails, brush her hair, and she was off bottles for good.
The staff at Parkside for 3K, then Mrs. Sabatke at Ding-A-Dong 4K, and later the Northside Elementary staff all helped her grow. Little by little, Perla turned into a very social little girl that was ready to talk your ear off all the time — and she had a great group of friends to boot.
By third grade she had graduated from speech therapy and I no longer had to wonder what her IEP reports might say.
Today, at 14, she’s a seemingly normal teenager. I notice a few things here and there still, and she’s pretty open to friends about her diagnosis — at least, what she can remember.
While I will always be proud of her for what she has been able to accomplish, I also reflect back on myself and the growth I endured during those early years.
The number one item was simply patience. She wasn’t going to make an instant 180. Those early years of struggle and strife wore on my relationship with her mom, and my own mental and emotional wellbeing. But over the years of watching her grow and mature, I learned myself to be patient.
With a job like news reporting, patience itself is generally running on empty. With a very small newsroom, things cannot be done in an instant. Sometimes I need to remind myself to find the time to close my eyes and take a couple of relaxing breaths, just so I can focus on the task at hand without losing my own marbles.
Perla’s overcoming of her ASD diagnosis is one of my proudest achievements as a father. I watched her struggle, and I saw her grow and succeed.
But I am also humbled in the fact that I know her diagnosis is not the same as other children. Her success story isn’t the next kid’s. I know it could have been harder for me, for her, for her mother and our families.
I saw myself grow, too. I saw myself find better mental health and happiness as the years went on.
Autism isn’t a “fake” disorder, and it isn’t caused by vaccines. There is still little known about its origins. It can happen to any family, of any background in any country in the world.
Luckily, there are amazing professionals to help aid families. Just around here, from local school districts to WEAP to Caravel in Janesville — help is nearby, you just either have to look or ask.
I implore any parent of a child that is concerned about any signs or symptoms to seek help. Even if there is no diagnosis, at least you’ll known, and chances are the professionals helping you will guide you in the proper direction. Be vigilant. Be hopeful and optimistic. And be patient. You’re never alone.
— Adam Krebs is the editor of the Monroe Times and his sporadic columns won first place in the 2020 Wisconsin Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. He can be reached at email@example.com.