Every family has a story. In fact, I think most families have stories worthy of at least a Lifetime movie, if not a book deal. Many of our stories are full of unique plot twists we never saw coming. The Landers family story falls into that category. And we aren’t done yet.
An Early Diagnosis
An important part of our story began 16 years ago. It was Sunday, April 11, 2004. It was Easter Sunday, but all I remember from that Easter is holding my sweet newborn son in my arms. We were pretty typical new parents. We were nervous, excited, exhausted, and learning that parenting was all on-the-job training.
The first year was fairly seamless. We watched him grow and sleep and cry and smile. The exhaustion was mixed with great joy. It was when he turned 12 months that some concerns began. He wasn’t babbling much like most one year olds. In fact he had no words, wasn’t pointing or waving, and didn’t pretend play with toys. He would play with his cars, lie down, and watch the wheels roll on the floor. That was what seemed to fascinate him.
At 15 months, I asked our pediatrician about his language delay. At 18 months, I asked for a referral for a speech therapist and got even better – my friend Julie Austin (shout out) asked a speech pathologist at Children’s of Alabama to do a speech evaluation on our son. She did. He was obviously very language delayed. And in God’s sovereignty (yes, I know everything is under God’s sovereignty), this woman had served on the Board of Directors for Mitchell’s Place which is an early intervention preschool for children on the autism spectrum. Suzanne knew what to look for concerning Matthew’s development.
Window of Opportunity
When it comes to being a “fight or flight” person in the face of adversity, I’ve always leaned toward flight. My motto was “steer clear of conflict!” But I’ve personally found when it’s your child who needs you to fight, you find the courage to fight. And fight we did. We were blessed to live in Birmingham – which is a destination city for Autism resources. We found early intervention resources that came to our home, we had him evaluated at Mitchell’s Place for a diagnosis, he was in speech therapy, we started occupational therapy . . . I made play dates with other toddler friends and told their moms what we were going through. Most of them were super supportive.
We ate peanut butter sandwiches and lived with yellow laminate kitchen counter tops (for years) for pay for therapies. He attended Mitchell’s Place preschool for two years (I mean, who really needs to retire?), and they worked wonders with his development. Early intervention is key for kids on the spectrum – whether they are verbal or non-verbal. I really believe during those early years there is great opportunity to influence their brains for lifelong learning. We tried to hit therapies hard for his good. After Mitchell’s Place he went to kindergarten and since he had a late birthday, we decided to “red shirt” him and let him do kindergarten one more time. It was the best decision we could have made.
The Autism Hall of Fame
If I could give away a dollar to every person who has helped us along the way, I would die still owing a plethora of money to specialists. From the speech therapists who helped us in the early years, to the OTs, to the preschool teachers who specialized in early intervention education, to the wonderful psychometrist who gave us the diagnosis – so many people have played a part in this story.
When we reached elementary school, more help came into play. Teachers who gave necessary feedback, a top notch speech therapist who would rack her brain thinking of strategies to help him inside and outside the classroom, and paraprofessionals! God bless the teachers’ aides who sat along beside him in class, re-directing him toward his work, helping explain what information he was missing when he got distracted, and going over work again that the teacher didn’t have time to re-trace. Without our elementary school, middle school, and high school teachers’ aides, this would all be for naught. Making sure our child was provided an IEP (Individualized Education Program) was one of the most helpful things we have ever done. Sending him to quality schools that actually adhere to those state mandates has been key in his progress.
Our Not-So-Typical Typical Life
I often tell my husband I feel like we have one foot in the “autism” world and one foot in the “typical” world. Our son is about to turn 16. SIXTEEN!! How did we get here? We had another son along the way, and he is 11 ½ (whole other article). That’s hard to believe as well.
So, where are we now? How is he doing? Truth is, he’s doing well. We have our “bumps in the road” – had one yesterday! But when I look at this big picture, he is nothing short of a miracle. With exceptional support from his case manager and teachers in high school, he has had a great year. He has some friends – true friends – who know all about him and his interests. His fixations are mainly sports related (really good if you live in the state of Alabama), and he keeps up with football and basketball games and statistics with the precision of a bookie! He loves to shoot basketball and has become more interested in running for exercise. He’s talking about joining the cross country team next year for school. These are things I didn’t dare dream when he was young. By God’s grace, he is doing some of them.
His social differences make him quiet, but when he has something to say, it’s worth listening. His learning differences sometimes frustrate and challenge him, but he continues to learn to work hard and is keeping a “B” average at school. He is learning to drive (in parking lots), and I’m learning not to grit my teeth to the point of developing TMJ. His story is still just beginning and there will be plenty of challenges ahead. We are trying to take life day by day, and as a friend wisely told me years ago – evaluate everything yearly.
This parenting gig still feels very much like on-the-job training where sometimes we fly and sometimes we fall (code for fail), but we keep trying. We adore the two blessings that God has gifted us with, and being a “boy mom” is more fun than I ever could have imagined. Some days, Autism wins and we feel discouraged. Other days, we are victorious and we show Autism who’s boss. It’s a very mixed bag, but so is most of life. I learned the most important lessons from my dad and God’s Word. My dad has taught me to never give up. Don’t. Give. Up. No matter how badly you want to. And God promises me in His word that He is always with me (Joshua 1:9).
Our story is still in the middle of its plot. It is full of twists and turns, ups and downs – like a good Star Wars trilogy. I think 20 years from now when we are in our sunset years, the summary of it will be the same as it is today as we look back in hindsight: God is faithful and we are the blessed recipients of His goodness.