As a social worker in one of the nation’s largest autism centers, I frequently meet families from all over who come to us seeking help for their child. They travel from across Maryland, from other states, and sometimes even from other countries. No matter where a family is from, each parent wants the same thing –the best chance for their child‘s future.
But, because their children struggle with communication, social skills, and behavioral issues, they worry what kind of future that might mean. These families know their children need help, and they are willing to literally trek around the world to get it.
And, they’re doing it all under extremely stressful circumstances. Families are sometimes scared and confused by all of the information out there about autism. Understanding the different terminology involved in a diagnosis—Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, and Asperger’s Disorder—is hard enough. Add to that the arrangement of school services, various therapies, and medical appointments, and any family could easily feel overwhelmed. I am truly awed by the strength these families find to cope with everything on their plate and also by the ways that they support their children.
To me, Ryan’s story is an inspiring example of how important the family unit is during the autism journey. As a young child, Ryan was speech impaired and his school diagnosed him with a developmental delay. As he got older, Ryan’s development didn’t seem to keep pace with his peers, social problems developed, and his behaviors confused his family and teachers. When Ryan began to isolate himself, his parents decided they needed more intervention. Finally they made it here, to the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), determined to get answers and help for their son.
And, like in so many of the cases we see here each day, when Ryan ultimately received a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and we were able to identify his unique needs, it meant big changes for his family.
His parents set out to learn everything that they could about what this diagnosis would mean for Ryan’s future and what they could do to help him succeed. I was especially touched by Ryan’s older sisters, who came to see me while on their school break with many questions about autism, and then had all of their friends support and encourage Ryan in his after-school job at McDonald’s.
Ryan’s mother and father made many changes at home to suit his needs. Because routines and consistency can be important to helping a child who has ASD to feel comfortable, they accepted Ryan’s need to be precise with time and adjusted their schedules to suit him. Ryan’s parents also did a great job in helping him to become more independent; he is now going to work and the library on his own! Once Ryan’s family was armed with the information that they needed, they became his biggest advocates. His parents ensured that the school added goals that would help Ryan with his social and life skills, including a career exploration course, in which he’s excelling today.
The wonderful thing about my work is that I get to meet families such as Ryan’s. They are heroic to me, and they are part of a larger community of families who are willing to do whatever it takes to help their children. Kids with autism are unique individuals who teach me something new every day. Granted there is hard work and many challenges involved for all of us, but I see each day how the strength and hopefulness of families leads to progress for the children they love.
Cathy Groschan, M.S.W., is a social worker in Kennedy Krieger’s Center for Autism & Related Disorders.