Autism Awareness Month Stories 2013

During Autism Awareness Month 2013, we asked parents and professionals to submit their stories about a special child with autism who inspired them. Here were some of the submissions:

A More Than Words® experience

I can testify that after ONE More Than Words class, we saw a difference in our son! We had never waited for him to attempt to say a word because of all the screaming and frustration. It was just easier to give him what he wanted, but in class we were given tools and instantly he changed. Each week we were given more techniques and each week our son improved. In class while we were setting our goals I always thought to myself, “He won't be able to do that,” but he surprised me and met those goals and more. He was using words with meaning, requesting with a purpose, making stronger eye contact, responding to his name better, engaging in social activity not just with us but with other children he didn't know and, at his school, initiating play using toys the way they were meant to be used. He began using the four 'W' questions, greeting and saying goodbye which he couldn't do before, started making animal sounds which he NEVER did before, transitioned better from one activity to the next through the system of PECS, and by the end of class he said his first sentence: "I want juice!"

I can't even begin to tell you how much this class has changed our son's life. He is less frustrated which instantly lessened his tantrums. He suffers from motor planning problems, and the words don't always come very easily to him. But they CAN come now all because of this class. My husband and I understand what's it's like for our son to live a life with Autism now, and were taught how to communicate with him and how to teach him in a way he can understand. I am FOREVER grateful to our class leaders and this program.

- Parent


A story of community

My son Conor learned much of what he knows about social connection from our church’s youth program. This regional Unity community embraced him and encouraged him as he found ways to connect. One of those ways was by playing guitar and singing at the retreat talent shows. Here are some of the lyrics to a song that Conor wrote and performed for the other teens just before graduating:

My friends, part of my heart, part of my life, part of all my memories. We helped each other complete our nice long journey. Together, we have been through tons, and it’s time to say so long. You are my treasure of gold, river of peace, for my honor of love. Every blossom has its own way to bloom, for every bird and bee. Hear my voice and hold it forever. 

Each time Conor sang the refrain, the other teens joined in. At the end, many of them rushed the stage to envelope Conor in a hug. The smile on his face was like no other.

- Parent


Visual helpers

Benjie was used to routine and challenged by changes. He was 3 years old, and had come to our Centre for an extra one-to-one session. Only interested in the handicap sign that opened and closed the door, he cried and screamed in protest to being with us rather than McDonald's where the family breakfasted every Saturday morning. Only when I sketched his home, car, the H sign, the 3 toys the family had brought, the car and McDonald's, and explained what was happening, did he completely calm down and interact with the toys which had no agenda of their own...This was done repeatedly whenever tension was observed. Visuals continued to help this young man when used in daily situations--a real breakthrough for this now very high functioning 14 year old.

- Professional


Progress with More Than Words®

James was just under two when he was diagnosed with autism, seven months after our family had buried his baby cousin. Our speech pathologist suggested registering for a Hanen Centre program where we got a chance to meet Ms Fern Sussman [More Than Words and TalkAbility Program Director]. James started the program in September of 2011 with 29 words and ended it in December with 156. In the summer of 2012 our speech pathologist advised that James had an age appropriate word level. In May 2012 a pediatric neurologist advised that he felt James was 'outgrowing' his condition. Today James uses the same methods we used with him to help with the younger kids in his daycare.

- Parent


Whatever it takes: A story of true commitment

A young, single mother of twin boys was enrolled in the More Than Words program I was running. She told me she immediately realized More Than Words was what she had been missing. Even in the pre-program, she was able to implement feedback and see immediate changes in her son’s interactions. In the first videotaping session, her son went from saying, “circle” to “give me circle mom”. She often stated that the program had “changed her life.” She was so sure that More Than Words was making a difference, that on the mornings of the program, she would get up at 5:00 am. This early rising allowed her to be ready when the boys woke up, so she could bathe them, read to them and play with them a little. She knew she wouldn’t have time to do this in the evening because she had to come to class. On those days, she would leave work early, despite threats from her boss, would pick the boys up from daycare and take them home to babysitter #2. She would then rush to class, often appearing exhausted but ready to go. When she got home at 10:00, the boys were usually still awake, so she still had a whole bedtime routine to get through. Did I mention she was a single mom? Despite all this, she never missed a class and when More Than Words was over, she said she wished there was more. What lucky boys, to have a mom so committed to their success. The sky is the limit for them.

- Louise Whiten, Speech-language Pathologist


Fun with R.O.C.K.

My colleague and I had been working with a little three year old boy and his mother for a month or so. We were trying to support him to engage him in play and initiate activities. We introduced the ROCK routine [from More Than Words]. We knew that we had really engaged with him the day we played a short little song on a tape. It started with a xylophone playing up the first five notes of a major scale - Bing, bing, bing, bing,bing! Then a soft little child's voice on the tape sang on the same notes "Up,up up, up, up!" The little boy's back straightened, his eyes lit up and he looked at us and BEAMED! He knew what this song was about; he understood "Up"!

Over the next weeks and months we continued to play the the whole song and little by little the boy joined in all of the actions. It was the perfect song for him because not only did the pitch match the words, but the words were functional and matched the actions. Here it is: Up Up Up Up Up Down down down down down. Stamp your feet for number 1 Pat your knees for number 2 Pat your tummy, number 3 Pat your shoulders, number 4 Pat your head, number 5 Make a roof number 6 Reach up high number 7 And..... JUMP! I learned from this that even the knowledge of a tiny word could be really up-lifting and a key to other learning. He eventually could go through the whole song with actions and loved to anticipate the 'JUMP!' at the end. We all loved his total and continued enjoyment of this activity. That first time he heard the music his radiant face was something really special.

- Professional


Playing copycat

One night at our More Than Words class, our Program Leader had us doing an exercise where we try to copy what our partners were drawing without using any words. We saw how attentive our partners were when we were copying them so we decided to use that to our advantage when dealing with our son. My husband went home and started copying everything Daniel was doing. Daniel was lying on the bed lifting his legs up and down and my husband started to do the same. When Daniel started jumping on the bed, my husband started to jump on the bed (...quite a sight to see a grown man jumping on a bed). Anyway, after 10 minutes of this "copying" game Daniel finally looked at my husband and I can say without a doubt it was the very first time he realized that we existed in 'his world'. This was a big breakthough. We continued to copy him over the next week and found he started to actually 'see' us.

- Parent


A voice through the written word

This week I had the pleasure of catching up with a past student. I was her special education teacher when she was in Year 2. She has verbal dyspraxia and severe autism. However, she managed to complete all her schooling in a regular school setting with the assistance of facilitated communication. I was so impressed to see her typing her communication to me on her ipad with no more than a touch of her shoulder. When I worked with her we used a full hand grip and a small typewriting device called a cannon for those who have been around that long.

If this wasn't impressive enough, I learnt that she now contributes back to the community through doing motivational speaking. Yes I said speaking. You see, she has always said that just because she doesn't speak with verbal words didn't mean she had nothing to say. Her written word is her voice. She has grown to be a beautiful young autistic woman who still needs constant support but is also striving to contribute to her family both through assisting with routine jobs in the home and finacially through her business. I am just so proud.

- Professional


Special words to cherish

When I heard my son’s first words I was so amazed at how he had picked up different words, like momma, daddy's, cookie, etc, but at 18 months when all those words left him I prayed I would hear them again. With continuous hard work when he was 8 years old I was greeted with "mom!" Tears filled eyes as I did not think I would hear him speak again. Those words are something I will cherish always. He has continued to do well with his language and just a few weeks ago at the age of 12, he turned to his younger sister and said, "I love you Kenna!" I have never been more proud of my son and all of his accomplishments! With having 3 children all on the spectrum I find myself treasuring each little moment of new things and now believe that anything is possible.

- Tammy, parent


Connecting through imitation...

While working with families over the years as part of the More Than Words Program, I have had the great pleasure of watching children and their parents as they "tune in" and connect with one another.

One particularly exciting moment that I witnessed occurred when a little boy who was often difficult to engage became aware of his ability to send messages. Jack was raising his arms up and down on his own during a video feedback session and his parents, who had recently finished the More Than Words session on "imitation", quickly copied him. Jack didn't notice immediately but after a few seconds he began to look at his parents as they raised and lowered their arms and said "up" and "down" in imitation of his gestures. Jack smiled and then laughed as he began to realize that HE was the one running the show -- he was the leader in this new "game" and HE controlled what happened. Several turns of "up" and "down" with Jack and his parents ensued with Jack now deliberately raising his arms up and down and then watching to make sure that his parents were keeping up! When Jack's parents watched the videotape afterwards they were amazed that something so simple as copying a random action could lead to such a powerful moment of connection with their child.

- Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist


The power of observing, waiting and listening

I was new to learning to work with children with autism and was observing a therapy session with a child with multiple levels of disability. He was bilingual, autistic, partially sighted and tactile defensive. I was invited to lay down next to him as he played with his therapist. I kept thinking about how much he had to struggle through and how would I ever help a child like this while simply laying next to him and smiling at his play activities. Suddenly, he stopped his play, turned to look me in the eye, gazed at me for a moment, and then said, "Beautiful." I was dumb struck. He saw me, invited me to his world, and impacted me deeply. I, on the other hand, had simply offered my presence. He taught me the power of simply being present, of offering myself without judging or working to create any special moment. It was a defining moment in my training.

- Professional


Learning to have fun with words

Brady and his mother, Sue, enrolled in a More Than Words program. Brady used words to communicate but his language was often scripted and ritualistic. During a video feedback session, Sue used the song "Twinkle Twinkle Traffic Light" to encourage Brady to fill in parts of the song with descriptive words. When she paused and waited for him to take a turn, Brady looked at her and said "Cookie Monster". Sue used this opportunity to make his idea fun. She teasingly said "There's no Cookie Monster in this song!" and tickled him a little. She started to sing the song again and when she paused, Brady looked up at her with an enormous smile on his face and said "Cookie Monster", but this time with purpose. He was using words to be silly and have fun with his mother! This interaction continued for some time and everyone in the room was touched by the joy that they created together. Because Sue followed Brady's lead and abandoned her own agenda, she helped him learn how to use language in a brand new way.

- Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist


A small gesture remembered

My name is Heidi LoStracco and I am a speech-language pathologist, specializing in AAC and the co-creator of the Speak for Yourself AAC app. I have a friend who was in my high school graduating class who has autism. I've known him since we were 11, but at the time, I don't ever remember hearing the word "autism." He was in the LD (learning disabled) class, and some of the kids were mean and some were nice, but he was "included"... for better or worse. Our senior year, I was in the athletic office, and he came in crying because he missed the bus. I offered to give him a ride home in my pea green Dodge Dart and he said, "I have to call my mom and make sure she says 'yes.'" His mom said "yes" and I drove him home. Years later, I went into a local convenience store and he was working there. He said (from across the store), "I remember you! We went to high school together! You gave me a ride home in your green car! I still live in that same house!" I remembered him right away but had to think for a minute about the ride home because it had been at least 10 years since I graduated high school, but, of course, he was right. We talked for a little while longer, and I left the store...thankful that I had offered him a ride in high school.

Through the years, when I see him walking home from work, or to the store, I stop and drive him home. The first time I did it, my children were in the car, and they thought I had lost my mind when I pulled over to pick up the "stranger" walking along the side of the road. He got in my vehicle as he explained that he could get a ride home from me because his mom already said he could (when we were in high school). He talked constantly and asked my kids questions, and before they could answer, he'd ask another. When he got out of the car, my son who was about 7, said, "He talks a lot!" I smiled because he was right, and I said, "His brain is really busy."

Now, my high school friend and I have lived in the same neighborhood for the last 8 years. He stops over every Saturday at 2:00, as he says, "if your car is here that means you're home." Some parts of our conversation are the same every time. He tells me he gets done work at 1:30 and says something about one of the times I've driven him home. He asks if I'm having a Memorial Day cookout (even in January) because he came one year and enjoyed it. Usually he adds something new. Today, for example, he stopped by at his usual time, and our conversation went something like this: Him: Easter is tomorrow. Me: Yes it is. What are you doing for Easter? Him: Going to church and then out to dinner at the buffet by the mall. Have you ever been there? Me: Yes, I was there once with... Him: What's it called? Me: I don't know the name of it. Him: (laughing) But you said you've been there! Me: I was, but I don't remember what it's called. Him: Are you watching The Ten Commandments tonight? Me: Probably not. I'm having everyone over tomorrow and I have it on DVD. Him: You have to watch it tonight! It's on ABC for 4 whole hours! Me: It's not that long of a movie. It probably has commercials, so I'd just watch the DVD. Him: It's only on ABC one time a year! You have to watch it because it has the commercial interruptions!!

Whenever I talk to my friend, I always think of my students who aren't able to express all of the thoughts racing through their minds...I think of how exciting it must have been when [my friend] first started talking (at age 8). I think of people who say that people with autism don't want to be social or have friends or that they "just don't want to communicate." I think of how wrong they are every time he leaves my house and says, "Anytime, right? I can stop by anytime if your car is here?" Yes, that's right, anytime...because there's never a time that he doesn't make me smile.

- Speech-language pathologist


The Hanen Centre is a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization with a global reach. Its mission is to provide parents, caregivers, early childhood educators and speech-language pathologists with the knowledge and training they need to help young children develop the best possible language, social and literacy skills. This includes children who have or are at risk for language delays, those with developmental challenges such as autism, and those who are developing typically.

Click on the links below to learn more about how Hanen can help you help children communicate: