For several years my oldest son, Robert struggled in school. In the course of seven years, my children had changed schools five different times due to military relocation and each time Robert fell further and further behind. I fought for his rights to be tested and retested, but each time I was either given the run around or told he did not qualify because he could still learn and catch up with tutoring. I saw my son go from a happy and delightful little boy to a tearful and struggling young man. He began to hate school and he didn’t have any friends. To make matters worse, with my husband being deployed a lot, he began to withdraw from many of the things he used to enjoy and my sweet boy lost all his vigor.
Finally my husband and I heard a commercial about Autism and it clicked. It was as if they were describing Robert perfectly and we had him tested.
As confirmed, Robert was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which is on the Autism Spectrum.
What Is Asperger Syndrome (ASPEN)?
Asperger syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum, with generally higher functioning. “Aspies” may look, walk, talk, and seem generally normal, but people with this condition may:
- have difficulty making friends of the same age, children with AS may feel more comfortable with adults or much younger children
- engages in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is still listening or trying to change the subject
- displays unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures
- does not empathize with or seems insensitive to others’ feelings and has a hard time “reading” other people or may have difficulty understanding humor
- doesn’t understand the give-and-take of conversation or engage in “small talk”
- seems egocentric or self-absorbed
- may speak in a voice that is monotone, rigid, jerky or unusually fast
- may be extremely literal or have difficulty understanding the nuances of language, despite having a good vocabulary
While people with AS are different, their unusual social skills and obsessive interests tend to set them apart from their peers. They may have in common some or all of the following symptoms:
- may have an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects
- may strongly prefer repetitive routines or rituals and becomes upset at any small changes
- may memorize information and facts easily, especially information related to a topic of interest
- may have clumsy, uncoordinated movements, an odd posture or a rigid gait
- may perform repetitive movements, such as hand or finger flapping
- may engage in violent outbursts, self-injurious behaviors, tantrums or meltdowns
- may be hypersensitive to sensory stimulation such as light, sound, and texture
- may “day dream” or “zone out” when overstimulated
Robert’s connection to the above symptoms were almost 100%, and he tested extremely high on the ASD scale. It was encouraged that we immediately get Robert tested for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to help him in school. However, because we moved around so much and many military educational facilities were not grounded for special needs, it was hard for each school to determine if he actually needed it and they suggested 504 plans instead.
It wasn’t until he was in middle school when we retired and went to a non-military related school that they immediately jumped on the issue and questioned why he was not already on an IEP. I had to explain that many military schools were not equipped nor trained to deal with special needs and many times they were generally discarded because military children were not in one school for very long and many teachers were military spouses who moved just as often. In fact, only because of my sheer understanding and experience with Robert was I able to see the symptoms in my daughter as well and therefore I was able to get her tested and diagnosed quicker than Robert.
Positive Encouragement Helps Families & Communities Cope
During the times when he was not getting the help he needed, I decided to take the next step and work with my children on emotional issues.
We began creating a character from Robert’s favorite aircraft, the C-130 Hercules. I wrote books about deployments from the perspective of an airplane character that helped my own children relate to the emotions of family separation. I published the books under my first name instead of my middle name to keep the genre’s of my other books separate. The books became an immediate hit in the elementary schools and I was asked to speak and read at several events.
After realizing how much the books and military child awareness was needed in the schools, I started a non-profit organization for military children that worked with local psychologists, school counselors, and military mentors to help the children cope with deployments, separations, and changes. The organization was called Kids of America’s Heroes (KOAH) and it was quickly embraced by the school system. KOAH became an after school program in the elementary schools and a fully added club to the curriculum in the middle schools. I began speaking at conferences to help bring awareness to the schools and the community. I helped families connect with local therapists, I gave reading sessions to elementary school classes, workshops to counselors, and speeches to Wing Commanders and school board executives. Most of all, I brought hope to, not just our family, but other families that struggled as well.
The books and organization had made headline news several times and I was then asked to speak at the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on military mental health issues. I talked about how we struggled as a military family, how I had endured great loss and tragedy, how Autism effected us, and how military deployments brought on anxiety and depression for myself and my children. I wanted the media and the people to understand how much, not only the soldiers endured, but the families as well. I realized that my calling was greater than myself.
Through a positive push and dedicated encouragement, years of struggle and adjustment were turned around for my children and myself. It simply took a clear mind, set goals, and positive thinking!