Sunday, June 15, 2008

Autism: Making new plans and goals for your children

Contributing Writer

Teresa and Kelley Nakoff look autism in the eyes as they go through their day-to-day lives as the parents of their 12-year-old son, Chase.

A student at Rodger O. Borror Middle School, Chase was diagnosed with severe autism in 1998, around the time of his second birthday.

Adjusting to the news of having a son diagnosed with autism took time, Mrs. Nakoff said.

“Even before your kids are born, you make such plans for them,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “But when you find out something like this, you just have to make new plans and goals for them.”

Mrs. Nakoff said living as the parent of a handicapped child brings with it a unique set of challenges.

“You really have to learn how to take life day-to-day,” she said. “It does get better, it does get easier — but it’s always a challenge.”

“An early intervention specialist mentioned autism to me when Chase was about a year-and-a-half, because she saw a lot of characteristics in Chase. She recommended we take him to see a specialist,” Mrs. Nakoff said. “I refused to believe it. In my quest to prove her wrong, I started reading everything about autism that I could get my hands on. What I discovered, is that a lot of the things being described are a lot like Chase.”

When Chase was 2 years old, his parents began the process of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy in their home. Chase went to preschool both in the Wilmington City Schools, and at the Town & Country School at the Nike Center. Chase attended school in a regional classroom specially designed for autistic children, which was housed in Lynchburg.

When the Wilmington City Schools opened its special classroom for autistic children, Chase began attending Holmes Elementary. This year, he has transitioned to Rodger O. Borror Middle School, where he is taught by teacher Debra Flint, and aided by Sharon Carr and Cindy Miller.

“He has done superb this year,” his mother said, unable to mask the pride she has for her son. “He is just going so far this year — and I think it has a lot to do with the set-up at the middle school.”

The set-up Mrs. Nakoff is talking about is one with space that allows for the accommodation of Chase’s sensory needs. Like many children with autism, Chase can become overwhelmed by the sounds, sights and expectations of a classroom. Without the ability to use words to express his frustrations, Chase has been known to show his frustrations by jumping, yelling and striking out. But — not at Rodger O. Borror Middle School.

The walking track around the gymnasium has become Chase’s refuge. When staff members see his mounting frustration, they can take him to walk a couple of laps around the gym. This allows Chase to center himself for a successful return to the classroom.

The Nakoff’s have another son, Dylan, who is a fifth-grader at Holmes. Mrs. Nakoff said Dylan, who is a part of the gifted programming offered by the Wilmington City Schools, is good with his brother.

“We’ve always told him, ‘He might be different, but he’s your brother.’ He loves his brother very much,” she said.

Mrs. Nakoff and Susan Frazier have joined up to form a support group for parents of children with autism. The group, which they call SPEAK (Supporting Parents and Educators of Autistic Kids), meets monthly.

Messages of autism awareness can be seen on many television commercials and billboard ads. Mrs. Nakoff said she wishes she could make the world understand that kids diagnosed with autism “aren’t bad kids.”

“When we’re out and people see our kids meltdown, it’s not just bad behavior. They’re not spoiled brats,” she said. “These kids have social and behavior problems that aren’t their fault. I can’t just spank an autistic kid and make it all go away — but some people still think that.”

Mrs. Nakoff is often one of the first people who reach out to families in the area who receive a diagnosis of autism for their children. “We have to be there for each other,” she said.

Her advice to them: “I share with them the best thing that was ever said to me. When Chase was really little, someone told me that he might not be what I expected, but he is still a treasure to me.”

The tears Mrs. Nakoff wiped away after she said this only go to prove that Chase, indeed, is a treasure to her family.

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