My wife, Luisa, and I have two children – Natalie, 6, and Derek, 5. Also, I have two older kids, Devin, 14 and Heath, 13 from a previous marriage. Until Derek was 2, we thought we were a pretty typical family. Then Derek started becoming insecure and clingy, and he wasn’t talking. He was having frequent tantrums and wasn’t interested in interacting with anyone, including his sister.
For a while, we were encouraged, because Derek was very affectionate. He would rub our arms or play with our ears. Little did we know that he was actually self-stimulating, which we later learned is a sign of autism.
Our entire family began to revolve around Derek’s needs. We felt guilty and hoped our other children would understand. When Derek was 2 ½, a developmental pediatrician diagnosed him as being “severely autistic.” The pediatrician recommended that we contact the Virginia Institute of Autism. When I got home that night, I immediately called and spoke to VIA’s executive director, who talked me down from the ledge. He told me about VIA’s education and school programs, and most importantly, gave me a reason to hope.
We were able to get Derek into VIA’s school just before he turned three. Now, after two years of intensive behavioral intervention at VIA, Derek has made enormous progress. The biggest thing for him was learning to communicate. When he started making requests by signing and using pictures, we immediately saw a big drop in his frustration level. Now, Derek can talk. And let me tell you, when you wait four years to hear “I love you, Daddy”, there are no words to describe the joy.
Derek interacts with us now in a much more typical way. His sister pushes his buttons and forces him to do things her way. Just like typical siblings, they are best friends and worst enemies. When I come home now, Derek says “Hi, Daddy!” and he hugs me. Because I’m a hands-on dad who likes to hug and wrestle, it means the world to get it in return from my son.
Thanks to the patience, high energy and commitment of his VIA instructors, Derek is gaining ground every month. He loves animals (especially our boxer, Rocko), watching DVDs and using the computer. He plays appropriately with toys and dresses himself in the mornings. He initiates play with his peers and is attending a typical preschool part time with the help of a VIA instructor. Most importantly, he is beginning to understand what it means to have friends and be part of a community.
There was a point at which we didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything as a family. It was just too stressful and unpredictable with Derek. Activities that should be fun were over-stimulating for him. Now, Derek is taking swimming lessons, is potty trained, and last summer we went to Florida.
Our greatest hope for Derek is that he will be mainstreamed into the public schools in the not-too-distant future. I’m proud of him and the progress he has been able to make at VIA. As a parent, VIA has helped me hold on to the hope that my little guy can still grow up to be a better man than me.