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Seeing the world differently: Local family raises three children with autism

Soundoff! - 4/19/2018

April 18--Capt. Dustin Elias of the 308th Military Intelligence Battalion and his wife, Maureen, are the parents of three children with distinct personalities.

Michael, 15, is known for his creativity; Gabrielle "Gabby," 13, for her independent spirit; and Coraline, 7, for her sweet disposition.

The couple, who reside in Bowie, face the same challenges in raising children that other parents do -- except that all of their children were diagnosed with autism at an early age.

Children with autism fall in different places on the spectrum. A supportive family and access to services can improve their quality of life.

The Autism Society of America defines autism spectrum disorder as "a complex developmental disability, [with] signs that typically appear during early childhood and affect a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a 'spectrum condition' that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees."

Some ASD behaviors include delayed learning of language, difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, difficulty with the ability to reason and plan, narrow-intense interests, poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring reported that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been identified with an ASD. That number spiked in 2012, with 1 in 88 children reported to be identified with ASD.

Maureen Elias, a former Fort Meade Military Spouse of the Year, said she and her husband do not raise their children from a deficit perspective.

"We tell them there's nothing wrong with them; they just have a different operating system," she said. "In a world of PCs, you're a Mac."

Fort Meade's Exceptional Family Members Program at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center reports that autism, anxiety and ADHD are the three most common diagnoses for special needs military children -- ages 17 and younger -- at Fort Meade.

About 25 years ago, the Autism Society established April as National Autism Awareness Month. The designation was part of a nationwide effort to "promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all and to ensure that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life," according to its website.

EFMP Seminar

In recognition of National Autism Awareness Month, EFMP is hosting a seminar on helping special needs children transition to adulthood. The seminar, scheduled for April 24 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Potomac Place Neighborhood Center, is targeted to families dealing with autism and other special needs conditions.

"The biggest way we provide services is by supporting families with information, referrals and non-clinical case management to access services," said Sonia Blyther, an EFMP systems navigator with Army Community Service.

Researchers have not determined a cause or cure for autism. However, therapeutic treatments can help families deal with symptoms and develop skills to ease social interactions.

Elias said that although a cause for the condition is not known, her brother and two sisters each have a child on the spectrum.

Michael and Gabby first displayed signs of autism at ages 3 and 4 with developmental and speech delays.

"Michael refused to take a bottle, and Gabby rarely slept for more than three to four hours a day as a newborn," Elias said. "With Coraline, I didn't suspect any trouble. She met all her developmental markers."

Elias said her children displayed the classic symptoms of autism -- difficulty making eye contact, spinning around in circles, and jumping up and down for no reason.

Michael was withdrawn, and Gabby did not feel comfortable engaging with other people -- particularly her peers.

Elias said Michael began to use different words for ordinary objects. For example, Michael would call a hat a head cover.

"My children see the world differently," she said. "They have a different way of trying to solve problems out of the box."

Gabby is particularly sensitive to smells and the sensations around her. Elias said if her daughter was overwhelmed, Gabby would scream for several hours.

"The hardest thing for me is how cruel and judgmental other people could be," Elias said.

When her children were young, Elias took them out to dinner for a children's night in an effort to teach them how to eat out in public.

Elias said the response from other adults was heartbreaking

"People would criticize me as being a bad parent because they felt I was not controlling my children's behavior," she said.

Making Adjustments

Families with autistic children not only have to learn to adjust to social situations, they must also find the affordable services and therapies.

"Sometimes it's hard to get a referral for these services, and even more so, when a referral is received, there is often a waiting list with the provider," Blyther said. "In addition, the cost of these services can be expensive if the health care provider does not cover all the cost."

Elias said that when her family lived at Fort Bragg, N.C., from 2008 to 2013, she relied on the local chapter of the Autism Society to meet other families who guided her to therapeutic services.

"That community saved my life," she said. "It helped me to feel that I was not alone and that someone understood."

Elias said those early years were hard.

As a military spouse, her husband's deployments and having to relocate required that she become an autism expert and advocate for her children.

"I had to educate myself, and many times I learned about therapies and worked with my children at home," she said. "My journey to advocacy began with my children."

Eventually, Michael and Gabby were engaged in speech, physical and occupational therapy 18 times a week.

When the family moved to Fort Meade in 2014, Coraline was placed on the waiting list for Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Elias said the family has been on the ABA waiting list for a year.

ABA therapy "works to systematically change behavior based on principles of learning derived from behavioral psychology," according to the Autism Science Foundation. "ABA encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors. It also teaches new skills and helps children apply those skills to new situations."

Coraline, who attends public school, has an Individualized Education Program that stipulates that she is to be provided with speech and occupational therapy during school hours.

Elias said Michael and Gabby are now doing well enough that they no longer need therapy and are enrolled in honors classes at public school.

Blyther said families with autistic children have to keep track of all medical paperwork including specialists, special education provisions, housing needs and therapies, and "to remember to be open-minded to different modes of treatment."

Elias said she and her husband are optimistic about their children's future.

"I also hope that as adults, they each find a group of friends who accept them and are kind," she said.


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