On February 26, 2002, Austin took his first breath of life and instantly engraved himself on all of our hearts. With big blue eyes that were only meant for mommy, Austin began his life on earth. The months that followed were filled with joy as we watched Austin smile, roll over, sit up and crawl for the first time. He had a very quiet personality (much like his daddy), a sweet spirit and a love for his big brother Michael. He met every developmental milestone with ease and we were thrilled with his bright smile and chubby cheeks. He would say “bye-bye” and wave to people, he would say “uh-oh” when he would fall down and he could say “mama.” He loved to play “peek-a-boo” and “patty cake”, and worked diligently on trying to walk. Austin took his first solo steps around 14 months and never looked back! What a perfect baby. We couldn’t have been happier. But somewhere around 15 months of age everything changed.
The changes that took place with Austin happened so gradually that we dismissed them at first. He had always had a hypersensitive gag reflex so when he started gagging and vomiting any textured foods we just thought he needed a little more time to adjust to table foods. We went back to baby foods and gradually worked on adding textured foods. His problem with eating was the first thing we noticed. Next, we noticed that Austin was losing his language and no longer made eye contact with us anymore. He would walk circles around the coffee table or other objects on the floor for hours. He didn’t play with his toys properly – he would only put them to his mouth and lick them and he had absolutely no interest in his brother anymore. Matter of fact, Austin didn’t really acknowledge any of us. I could walk into the room and call Austin’s name and he wouldn’t even realize that I was there, much less respond to his name being called. He began to walk on his toes and flap his hands when he got excited. It seemed as if Austin had retreated into his own little world…a world I knew nothing about.
Around 17 months of age Austin was referred by his pediatrician to start Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy to deal with his developmental delays in fine motor skills, speech and language as well as his many sensory issues. When Austin started ST & OT, he had little to no eye contact, no language of any kind and no social skills. He didn’t respond when his name was called, he never noticed when I left the room, and he never seemed happy to see me. He was just a shell of the happy little boy he once was. I must admit that at this point I was in denial that there was anything wrong with Austin. I honestly thought that he was just a little slow and that given time he would one day “snap out of it.” Austin continued in therapy making very slow progress. I was still haunted by several questions… “What causes a normally developing child to lose language he had learned?”… “Why doesn’t Austin look at me anymore?”… “Why doesn’t he play with his brother anymore?”…“Why does he flap his arms and shriek really loud when he gets excited?” All of these were questions I had no answers to. My journey for answers was about to begin, and I could never have imagined where this road would take me or what wonderful people God would bring into our lives to help our little boy.
One evening when Austin had just turned 2, I noticed something I had never paid attention to before. Austin was walking around the room, just staring into space. I called his name…no response. I called his name again…no response. I screamed his name…no response. At that moment I felt something I hadn’t yet felt before…panic. I realized for the first time that there was something seriously wrong with my little boy. What he was doing wasn’t normal. Distraught, I called my mom the next day and I told her I thought something was wrong with Austin. I was taken back to hear her say that she agreed. In that conversation I heard her say that she thought Austin was “autistic.” How could Austin have autism? Where would I go? What would I do? I felt so lost and desperate for God’s direction in this situation. From that moment on, I began my quest to find out everything I could about autism and find out what could be done to help my child.
On Thursday, April 22, 2004 at 26 months of age, Austin was diagnosed with moderate to moderately severe autism. The Developmental Pediatrician who diagnosed Austin recommended that he receive intensive ABA therapy. I began to search for ABA. I quickly learned that the therapy was not available in our area. We live in a very small town (about 800 people) in East Texas. The closest big city was Dallas and it was still about 75 miles away. It was not realistic to drive to Dallas every day for 7 hours of ABA therapy so I posted my name on several ABA websites stating that I was looking for a therapist – but nothing came of that. I had all but given up hope on ABA until my sister called me one day and told me about an article that she had read in the Dallas Morning News. It was called, “The Fervor and the Solace.” The article told of Tracy Woodall’s tragic story and her desire to turn that tragedy into something wonderful. I can honestly say that God had answered my prayers and led me to someone who could help. I read the article and went to the Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Children website and I read every word. I sent the foundation an email telling them about Austin and asking if they would consider helping our family. I was convinced that ABA therapy was what Austin needed but I was also very discouraged because I was having no success finding a therapist to work with him and I had no clue where to start. I felt that the Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Children was my only chance to get ABA for Austin and I was desperate to make that happen!
I then received a call from the foundation saying that they were interested in helping us! I was ecstatic! I got in touch with them and they told me what I needed to do to start the process. After I sent all of Austin’s medical records, paperwork, and a short video of him I talked with Tracy on the phone and set up an appointment for her to come out to our house and evaluate Austin. Tracy drove 2 hours to come to our home one weekend to train my husband and me. She explained ABA in a way that we could understand and gave us hope that we could begin a home-based program. I will never forget watching Austin as Tracy worked with him. His little face came alive as he began to understand what “sit down” meant. By the end of the day he was so proud of himself when he got something right and it showed all over his face. He was eager to please us and he actually wanted to work! I felt a connection with him that day that I hadn’t felt in almost 2 years and that touched me in a way I will never be able to describe. I felt like a very small ray of light had been shed on the very dark and lonely part of Austin known as autism. For the first time in a long while I believed that Austin could come back to us.
After we met with Tracy for the first time we immediately started a home-based ABA program for Austin. Initially, my husband and I were the only therapists, but now we have 2 people we have trained and hired to work with Austin on a daily basis. I still try to take on 6-8 hours (myself) of therapy a week with Austin. I enjoy watching him learn. Austin has come such a long way and is doing things that I never would have dreamed were possible. I could go on for hours telling you about all that he has learned! His success has become my inspiration to keep going. I refuse to give up on him. One day he will be able to say “I love you Mommy” and I live for that day. Until then, I settle for his sweet kisses and hugs.
I will tell you that our journey has not been an easy one. We have tried so many different treatments in our search for recovery. We changed his diet, put him on several different vitamins and supplements, went through IVIG therapy, chelation, and many other things. We have only seen success with some of the treatments but nothing has been as dramatic as the results we see everyday from ABA. I admit there have been countless nights of crying myself to sleep and praying that God would allow Austin to recover. Is it possible? Yes. Will he recover? I don’t know. But I do know that God has never left our sides and when I have felt at my lowest He has been there with us every step of the way. I know with all my heart that God led me to Tracy Woodall and that her foundation was a direct answer to my prayers. A simple “Thank You” will never come close to what I feel for Tracy. She has inspired me and helped me to see the potential I have as Austin’s mother and as his therapist. I have the deepest admiration for what she does and what her foundation has accomplished for many autistic children around the world. The Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Children has given me the resources that I need to help my little boy on his road to “recovery.” We have a long way to go, but I believe it is possible!!