Krissy: Our Introduction to Autism
Krissy is the daughter of dear friends of ours and received an autism diagnosis at age 2. Despite participation in various early interventions through the public school system, she made agonizingly slow progress. At five years old, Krissy finally began to talk, and at age six had developed a large vocabulary of words, but had very limited communication skills. For instance, if she wanted a banana, she did not know to come and ask for one. Instead, if you asked her, “Do you want a banana?” she would echo, “banana” if she did want it, or be silent if she didn’t. Occasionally she would stand in the middle of whatever room she happened to be in, and yell banana or whatever she craved at the moment. Mostly though, one had to guess what might interest her.
She repeated complete video scripts (often mumbling, as she didn’t understand the words anyway) but was oblivious to people around her, and never attempted conversations. Before her 8th birthday, she was on heavy doses of antipsychotic drugs to combat anxiety, hyperactivity, depression, OCD and self-injurious behavior.
What does this have to do with Timberdoodle? In 2005, when Krissy was 8, she spent a month at Timberdoodle, and by the end of that month, she was able to answer yes and no questions intelligently. She had developed some imitation skills, both immediate “do this” and delayed imitation such as showing us happy, sad, surprised, tired… faces. We started her on phonics and were thrilled to see reading finally making sense to her. Despite her initial fear of water, by the end of that month, she was obviously enjoying herself at the lake. She loved imitating the way others jumped into the water and liked simply floating around in her inner tube, watching what the other swimmers were doing. Regardless of what activity we involved her in, we made it a point to build communication skills, especially because at this point her primary means of communication was screaming.
At the end of our month with Krissy, we sent her back home in time for school. While her teachers noticed and appreciated the progress we’d made with her, because of the class size they were simply unable to make progress at the same rate, and she continued to be a huge challenge at home and school.
In May of 2006, Krissy joined us again, months before her 9th birthday. During the summer, with her physician’s support and skepticism, we were able to wean her entirely off both antipsychotic drugs, while seeing dramatic improvements in her behavior. (Just as a side note, her whole team and of course our family were prepared to leave her on the meds had she needed them at the time. Our goal was simply to be sure that she was at the minimum dose she currently needed.)
Krissy progressed rapidly, which was both encouraging and surprising, considering that she was already almost nine – long past the so often stated, “Critical age of 2-5 years old.” Knowing that Krissy needed to be a valuable member of the family we incorporated her into our routine as much as possible. She pitched in alongside each of us, doing laundry, garbage, dishes, cleaning, mucking out, hauling bark dust and so forth. Of course, to have her labor beside us was time-consuming, as we had to direct and insist upon almost every move she made. However, we knew that understanding concepts and learning to serve would probably be the most important things in her life right now, so we tried to keep that emphasis.
Communication and language drills were a part of everyday life. We emphasized everything from nodding to prepositions, and loved finally conversing with her, no matter how cryptic and eccentric those conversations were! Her screaming also began to taper off as she learned to use words like, “Please stop!” or “Ouch.”
A month later Krissy grasped the art of answering questions. “Tell me five things you see.” “What is the horse doing?” “How many toys?” “Tell me three things you put on a plate.” “What does the cow eat?”
In June we met Krissy’s family at the Oregon coast and spent the day on the beach. The waves intrigued her, but also seemed cold and scary. She really wanted to play in them but was too frightened to do it on her own. For the first time, we had the communication, obedience, and trust to work through this with her. Soon Krissy was running back and forth in the waves and having a great time. Over a year later, Krissy still talked about this trip and enjoyed reviewing it in her scrapbook.
As her reading skills increased we found we could now begin to write out things we were trying to clarify, and she was able to grasp the written words. This was a huge help for Krissy, as auditory processing continues to be difficult for her.
We continued to see her language skills grow, and recorded many fun ‘communication moments’. For instance, after studying the plums on the kitchen table, Krissy asked for “Big, big, grape please.”
On another evening Krissy went to get a bowl out of the dishwasher and found that the dishes were still hot. To her surprise, she was hit with a burst of warm air as she opened the dishwasher. When we asked her what the problem was, she exclaimed, “hot!” This was the beginning of her ability to communicate problems. She then spontaneously grabbed the potholders, using them to get the bowl out. We loved seeing both the language and critical thinking skills develop.
In our quest to help her become productive, Krissy learned to do laundry. It was quite the thrill for us to be able to tell her, “Set your timer for 6 minutes and go do a load of wash.” A few moments later she bounded out of the laundry room asking, “What should I wash?” After finding that out, she dashed back to finish the load before the timer rings!
During the summer of 2007, Krissy continued to progress. She became a fluent reader, reading easily at a 2nd grade or higher level. She grasped multiplication and began to memorize her math facts. To our delight, Krissy began to comment on the world around her, and ask questions. She even began to understand what we meant by “why” and could tell us why she wanted different things.
Krissy loves to know people’s names now and is learning to ask them rather than guessing. A real milestone for her was when we had a guest from Texas visit. Krissy had been fixated on cockroaches for some time and was eager to interview the guests about that. We wrote out a list of questions for her, and Krissy eagerly asked them; this was her first information-gathering conversation of that sort!
Below is the video project we worked on with her during the final weeks of her stay. We loved seeing her creative side blossom as she spontaneously came up with six different introductions to her show. With the help of those video social-stories, Krissy began to complete an entire morning routine list on her own. This included eating breakfast, clean-up, changing her clothes, doing a few chores and then taking a break with her toys.
At the end of summer 2007, her family was ready to have her home full-time. It was heartbreaking to have her leave, but God had other plans for our family, and this certainly did not end our involvement in autism, the thrill of seeing progress is truly addicting!