Stories of local families facing autism with hope and strength
Show Me Your Happy Face
Story by Christine Craddock
“My heart hurts for them,” Dezira Dewhurst says of families whose children have been recently diagnosed with autism.
When her son Zachary was diagnosed at age three, the Bristow mom says her initial reaction was complete devastation. The feeling lasted a day before she sprang into action.
She started searching for a therapy that would be best for Zachary and discovered Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). It was when she saw how her son responded to it that changed everything and gave her the sense that “it’s going to be ok.”
Dewhurst went back to school to learn how to provide ABA therapy, and for the last 17 years has been helping other families find their way through this difficult diagnosis.
Research states that less than ten percent of autistic children go on to live independently. But there are so many ways this statistic can be altered. “Early intervention is key,” Dewhurst says. In some counties, like Prince William, autistic children are provided services two days a week initially, and then more frequently as they get older. This, though, is the opposite of what the research says they need, she explains.
Thanks to his mother’s love and advocacy, today Zachary is a master at completing puzzles, and his room is decorated with framed 1000-piece Disney Pixar puzzles he finished in two days. He’s also an electronics and tech whiz with a wonderful affinity for music; he taught himself to play the piano at the age of three.
“He will listen to and play anything from Jesus Loves Me to Enter Sandman,” Dewhurst said. “He likes to record himself playing the piano and singing his favorite songs and then watches himself over and over.” In addition to these activities, Zachary really enjoys playing for the Brentsville District High School Unified Basketball Team.
When asked where she sees Zachary in the future, Dewhurst says “I see him with me for the rest of his life.” Her hope is that what she and her family are doing for Zachary now will someday enable him to do something outside their home for a few hours a day.
“If you’re lucky enough to meet my son,” Dewhurst says, “you’ll know he likes you if he says, ‘Show me your happy face,’ ‘Whistle for me,’ and ‘Take off your glasses, I want to see your eyes.’”
One Mother’s Advice: Dewhurst offers the following suggestions for parents of children who have been recently diagnosed:
Find an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) provider. Leap Ahead, a practice in Manassas where Dewhurst has worked since 2003, explains that ABA, the most widely used intervention to treat children with autism, focuses on treating behavioral difficulties and producing significant social improvement.
Learn the laws of Individualized Education Programs in your state. In order to be your child’s best advocate, you must become versed in this language.
Find a support group – in person and online. Chances are that if you have a specific question, another autism parent has experienced it and can provide advice.
Discover your child’s strength and build on it. Most of these kids are underestimated, says Dewhurst, and ultimately, they need to learn a job. Ask the school to include classes that will benefit your child. Finding your child’s strengths and interests early could lead to something wonderful.
Surround yourself with people who “get it,” people who love you and your child unconditionally.
Future YouTuber and Author
Story and Photo by Christine Craddock
When Haymarket mom Kathy Gill noticed something “off” with her then nine-month-old son Brandon, she immediately had him tested for development delays. Nonverbal for the first two years of his life and diagnosed officially with autism when he was five, Gill believes the key to her son’s progress was early intervention via the special education Pre-K setting at Tyler Elementary. Now a fifth grader, Gill says Brandon’s IEP “has helped tremendously in regard to academics.”
As with many individuals with autism, Brandon has difficulty with social interactions and completing simple tasks. But he also has a great sense of humor, dances in class, and, says his mom, “is a huge blessing to our family. He makes us laugh and keeps us on our toes but most of all, he’s a truly brilliant kid with a bright future ahead of him.”
While I was talking with his mom, I got to meet Brandon. I thought you’d enjoy meeting him, too.
Lifestyle: Brandon, what would you like others to know about autism?
Brandon: Autism is tricky because I get triggered easily. When I am really hungry, I get hangry. I wish other kids would learn more about autism, maybe they would be nicer to me.
L: What are your dreams for the future?
B: I want to be an author and a famous YouTuber. I want to do 24-hour YouTube challenges and unlock my creative mind.
L: What is your day-to-day life like?
B: I have a tough time completing work at school. I know the answers, but it is a challenge getting them from my brain down to the paper. I try to do my best, but it doesn’t always go so well. I get bullied a lot and I do not have any friends.
L: Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
B: I am working on a book series that I will have published one day. It is a series about a group of survivors living through the zombie apocalypse. When I’m 18 I would like to change my name to Henry Boris Singleton and publish my books under that name.
L: Why Henry Boris Singleton?
B: I want to change my name to Henry because it is not a popular name and it matches me. I like it because it is different, and I am different.
L: What is your favorite subject?
B: Reading because it helps me think of more ideas for writing my own books.
“Step out of your comfort zone.” | Joanna Hughes urges others with autism to follow her lead
By Hannah Samlall, Photos by Doug Graham
“I see myself as differently abled, not disabled.” This is just one of the many sentiments Joanna Hughes shared with me on a cold and snowy Thursday in January, as we chatted in her cozy apartment in Warrenton.
Childhood was difficult for Joanna, particularly since she wasn’t diagnosed with autism until she was in high school. “It took me a while to accept who I am,” she said. “It was a long, hard road. Being in public school was hard, too. I was bullied a lot.”
Along with bullying came other day-to-day challenges.
“A kid without autism can walk into a grocery store and it doesn’t bother them,” Joanna said. “For a person with autism, it hurts them. The lights, the people, the noises. I used to have meltdowns in stores because of that.” Fast-forward nine years since being diagnosed at age 16, Joanna has been working at Harris Teeter now for two years. “It’s a bit ironic,” she said. “I’m working at a grocery store where I used to have public meltdowns.”
One of the recurring themes that came up over and over during our time together, was how important it is for people with autism to have a support system. Lucky for Joanna, she has always been surrounded by people who care for her deeply. “They were just there when I was at my lowest,” Joanna said. “They were a shoulder to lean on and someone to listen. Even one kind person can make a huge difference in someone’s life.” She went on to list the people in her life who have supported her – her family and her friends at school, among others. “Some people with autism don’t have that support. It makes me sad. We need the help.”
She hasn’t always had the mentality that autism isn’t a disability, though. “It helps to have a person on the spectrum talking to you about it. A really good friend of mine helped me see the light in it,” Joanna said. “Discussing things with him really helped. I try to do the same thing for others now.”
Of all the supports and resources we talked about, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services was at the top of the list. “I’ve been with them for years,” Joanna said. “They’ve helped me a lot.” DARS was able to set Joanna up with a group that assisted her throughout the application and interview process for her current job. “They also come with you to your job until they think you’re ready,” Joanna said.
Other resources Joanna recommends are Facebook groups, specifically for those with autism. “It really helps to have people to talk to that relate to your experience.” Other support resources we discussed were things like anti-bullying groups, specifically outside of the school system. “I know special education tried their best, though.”
It would be remiss of me not to share Joanna’s passion for music. “You know, people with autism have their one obsession,” Joanna said. “Mine is singing. It’s a huge passion of mine.” She shared how much singing and music has helped her throughout her life. Growing up in the church choir, she went on to become the lead singer. In high school, her chorus teacher pushed her to go after what she wanted, which resulted in her singing “For Good” from the musical Wicked at her high school graduation. One day, her dream role is to play Elphaba. “I can relate to her,” Joanna said. “I was an outcast, I think different, and I feel different.”
When I asked Joanna if there was one thing she wanted people to take away from this article she said, “I want people with autism to know you’re not alone. There are people that understand the struggle you’re going through. We’re all going out of our comfort zone to do our own thing in the world,” she said. “I’m going out of my comfort zone every day and you can, too.”