As parents, we all have one thing in common – no matter the circumstances, every child is undoubtedly a gift in his or her own special way. My wife, Dorothy, and I are fortunate enough to have experienced that twice in our lives, more recently with our daughter Carly, but for the first time with our son, Andrew John Ward, Jr.
Our journey to parenthood started on October 1, 1987. While it never gets easier, as Carly loves to remind us every single day, there’s something beautiful and exciting, but admittedly terrifying that comes with being a first time parent that is indescribable. You think you plan for everything that could come your way, you embrace the notion of expecting the unexpected, until you’re dealt a hand you never saw coming.
I’m a businessman. I thought I’d mastered the poker face – maybe not literally, but rest assured figuratively. Give me something you didn’t expect and I’d make you believe I’d been planning for it for years. It’s just the nature of what I do. But during early 1991, in a pediatric office at Hershey Medical Center, my son was given a diagnosis that would call any parent’s bluff – our now 3-year-old gift was autistic.
4 in 10,000 – that was the incident rate of autism at the time. No one knew what autism was. Truthfully, no one had really even heard of it, studied it, or most certainly planned for it. With a quick dismissal, Dorothy and I were told our silent son would never read, write, talk, or type. Admittedly, we left the office with that all too familiar question of “Where do we go from here?”
If I were a betting man, I would bet on my wife’s relentless determination every single time. It did not take long for Dorothy to disregard the path the doctors had set for Andrew in that office. She took to the Internet, tirelessly researching what autism was and how others were coping with this complex diagnosis. Many days, we came up empty handed with nothing more than hypothetical theories and contradictory ideas, until one afternoon we ultimately decided to follow the research trail of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) all the way to California.
Our first step was a big one, but Dorothy knew the lead researchers on ABA were at UCLA. During her trip she met with countless researchers, discussed what was already known about autism and what was on the horizon, and learned about various comprehensive programs and efforts that could result in some promising outcomes. After a few short days, my wife had the researchers committed to planning and establishing an in-home developmental program for Andrew.
The next few years were intense, to say the least. Andrew had begun public school in an inclusionary setting, and we continued to shape his behavioral development through our recently developed in-home program for 4 hours a night, 7 days a week. We also experimented with other therapies, hoping to develop the common sensory and special issues that we learned may be presented in children with autism.
The road to Andrew’s development was a rocky one, at best. The constant work he was doing both in and out of the house was daunting. For every one step forward there were often times when it felt like we just as quickly took two steps back, but even when Dorothy and I felt defeated, we knew Andrew did not. We made countless trips to countless therapists and workshops– a three-week stint in Cincinnati for auditory training to help Andrew develop a tolerance for different sounds, a monthly trip to White Plains for vision and spatial awareness exercises, a workshop in Philadelphia on facilitated communication where Andrew types his first few words to us. The list goes on. Andrew should have been tired. We were tired. But the little boy who would allegedly never communicate with us wasn’t giving up, so neither would we.
As time passed, things got better and things got worse. What I’ve come to realize after spending time blaming countless other things is that this pattern is not just relevant to autism, but rather to life. Storms hit, but the sun shines again, and after all, smooth seas never did make for a skilled sailor. We hit lows when Andrew was turned away from certain summer camp programs for not being “independent enough,” but we hit highs watching our son graduate from high school at the age of 20 with fellow classmates.
Today, the boy who would never read, write, talk, or type works at the Pollack Center for Industrial Training in Mechanicsburg; loves cars, planes, traveling, and birthdays; spends 8 weeks of his summer at camp in the Poconos and spends his winter weekends skiing; sings, laughs, plays verbal games with friends and family, and panics (don’t we all) when separated from his technology. Who would have thought?
Impossibility is a hindrance we can choose to succumb to, or we can choose to take head-on, with dedication and passion to overcome it. There are so many people, programs, and opportunities that have made Andrew who he is today, despite the “impossibility” that once could have burdened him.
As a family, we were and still are fortunate to have been able to easily access the therapies and technology that played an instrumental role in Andrew’s development. Even more so, we are fortunate to have had such a phenomenal gift placed in our lives. This story may seem more so about the things we all have taught Andrew, but the surface has barely been scratched on the things that Andrew continues to teach us every day.
While there is no right answer in how to raise a child with autism, or what types of activities families choose to do for developmental purposes, it is hard to imagine what would have been without everything Andrew had along the way to shape his development into the loving and capable young man he is today. We understand that there are many opportunities for individuals with autism to find what they love to do. We also understand the potential financial pressure that comes with it. Gaining access to therapies, technologies, etc., could make a huge difference in the life of someone with autism. Andrew continues to be a gift to us. We hope that what we have learned through our experiences with him can be a gift to all of you as well.