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Living and thriving with autism: JP’s journey

Spirit, Inspiring Stories

“High functioning autistic.” Three little words on a school district psychologist’s report that summed up seven years of tears, frustration, school changes, teacher conferences, tests and one misdiagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While I was relieved to finally have answers about my beautiful, bright yet quirky little boy, I mourned what I saw as an uncertain and unpredictable future.

I had no clue what lay ahead when JP made his way into the world in November 2003. Sure, he flinched easily and took a little longer to grasp gross motor skills like rolling over, crawling and walking – but he slept through the night at 4 and a half months and had a healthy appetite, so I wasn’t too worried. But as he got older, I noticed some things: fixations (the Thomas the Tank Engine years were especially difficult); repetitive behavior; inconsistent eye contact; an awkward gait when he ran; aversion to walking on sand or grass —even when wearing shoes; emotional outbursts (that were uncontrollable and sometimes resulted in him hitting himself in the face); and the inability to physically or emotionally handle routine activities like haircuts. And, despite being outgoing and talkative from an early age, JP struggled socially. Playdates and birthday party invitations, staples for the pre-school and kindergarten set, eluded my son. I tried to remedy that by enrolling him in a non-competitive soccer program; both of us left the first session in tears.

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But finally having a label to describe my son also meant I had the necessary information to get him the right support. I pulled him out of the private school he’d been attending for two years (especially after the principal, upon reading the psychologist’s report, responded: “Perhaps this isn’t the right place for JP”) and moved him into a public school that boasted the only program in the district for high functioning autistic children. JP was mainstreamed 90 percent of the time, but started and ended his day in a resource classroom where he worked on his social skills. He also received occupational and speech therapy and an aide accompanied him to class, helping him when he was unable to regulate his emotions.

By fifth grade, JP was flourishing academically and socially. He had a best friend, he learned how to tie his shoes and even ride a bike. Additionally, since one occupational therapist told me that JP’s sensory processing disorder (very common in children on the autism spectrum) would make team sports difficult, I indulged his obsession with the movie Kung Fu Panda and signed him up for martial arts. He still was socially awkward and had periodic emotional meltdowns, but I saw tremendous progress.

Fast forward to 2018: JP is a 14-year-old eighth grader with straight As and a knack for penning original rap music. He is friendly, popular (he’s never missed one school dance), funny and well-liked by teachers and students alike. Now, the kid who experienced sensory overload during team sports is a star basketball player on both his school and club teams. And this year, the district psychologist’s report recommends that we finally transition him off of the Individualized Education Plan he’s had since second grade.

So is my son “cured”? No. There is no cure for autism. Does he still show signs of being on the autism spectrum? Absolutely. Have we experienced periodic setbacks in his progress? Of course. However, through early intervention and his own determination (and maybe having a mom who refused to accept limitations), we both look forward to his bright future filled with endless possibilities.