From Autism To Allstar

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By Rhonda Brunett
I grew up in a not so typical household. I’m one of three children and the oldest of my siblings. I have a brother, Eddie, and a sister, Susie. Susie was born with a rare form of epilepsy, cerebral palsy and brain damage. My sister was in and out of hospitals as a toddler. My mom was told Susie would be a vegetable and should be institutionalized.
ince my mom couldn’t foresee this way of life for my sister, she found a doctor, Dr. Paul Dunn, who followed the program of Dolemann & Delacoto from the Institute for Achievements of Human Potential in Philadelphia. This therapy trained the unused parts of the brain. My mother then went door to door, asking her neighbors and friends, and the
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friends of friends, to do volunteer therapy. This therapy was done four times a day, totaling approximately 15 hours a day for eight years. We had a patterning table which consisted of three people: One person would turn her head from side to side; the other two moved Susie’s arms and legs in unison. The therapy also included a crawl box in which my mother and volunteers crawled
her through the box. My mother also had to place a plastic bag on Susie’s mouth and nose, in which she breathed in her own carbon monoxide. This would make the blood rush through her brain faster. She received warm, salt water rubs for circulation on her palsy arm daily. Flashcards were done over and over again to help her develop speech. Tactile exercises, such as picking up pennies
The Autism Perspective
Rick, Jordan and Rhonda Brunett
Newborn and new mom
The Brunett family
Iron muscles
and rice, helped with her fingers and arms. And finally to go to sleep at night, mother had to position her in different ways. As a sibling of a child with a disability, I was very confused and disturbed by my mother’s constant attention to my sister. My brother and I both grew to resent the constant chaos in our household. When I matured and finally fell in love with and married my husband, Rick, I looked forward to starting our own family. On October 6, 1992, we were both blessed with our miracle - a beautiful baby boy, who was given the name Jordan Michael Brunett. Jordan’s life started and resembled the life of any normal, neurotypical child up until the age of two. Around the time he received his measles-mumps-rubella shots, he entered into his own world. Suddenly he went from speaking twenty words to only two. He played alone and had limited interaction with his peers. He paced back and forth and began to spin constantly. It appeared that he may be deaf. There were times when he wouldn’t even give eye contact, and that made me question if he could even hear me. I was confused by his extreme abilities and behaviors. He memorized the presidents of the United States, could read a book cover to cover, and could even say his ABCs out of order. Yet, he would line up his toys and scan them. There was no conversation or pragmatic speech. He couldn’t say “Mommie, I want a cookie.” He would pull, point and use high-pitched screams to communicate. Things were not sitting well with me. I couldn’t control my own son. He made no eye contact; he would scream and have meltdowns. He would not follow directions. There were sensory issues. He became overstimulated at parties and would want to leave. He would not walk barefoot on the grass, as if it hurt his feet. I couldn’t brush his hair…thank goodness for mullets! Being a hairdresser, I would cut his hair in his sleep but couldn’t cut the back. He craved only certain foods - french fries,
McDonald’s hamburgers, pop and pizza. And he had to be naked from the waist down. It was also noticeable that tags on clothes bothered him. One day I went to take Jordan to the grocery store; he went into a massive meltdown and my mom yelled at me because I couldn’t get him in the car to take him to the store. She yelled: “What’s’ wrong with you? I took three kids to the store and you can’t even take one!” I thought I was a terrible mother and a failure. At this point, I was a complete and total wreck. Luckily I had neighborhood friends that were wonderful. Together we created an environment for our children willed with love and acceptance. We cherished each and every child. On this particular day, my neighbor, Carla, supported me while I had a meltdown. She suggested a preschool screening. The woman who gave the assessment told me to come back in six months because Jordan was just shy three weeks for meeting the age cut-off (three years of age) to be accepted into a special education preschool program. I begged, pleaded and cried. I think she felt sorry for me and she proceeded with the assessment. The assessment showed developmental delays. He was assessed at eighteen months, yet was three years old. He then entered a special education preschool program which consisted of a special education teacher, a speech teacher, an occupational therapist, and an aide. Everything taught at school was followed through at home. The speech teacher mentioned that she thought Jordan might have PDD. I asked the teacher, Jill, “What is PDD?” Jill explained that it fell under the umbrella of autism. I went numb. All I could think of and knew about was Rainman. Rick appeared unaffected when we discussed it that evening. I, on the other hand, had this sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach: “Why would God do this to me again? I already lived this, how could God be so cruel?” I knew I was in a sink or swim
The Autism Perspective
s a child, I had trouble staying on task and I also had some processing issues in school. It was because of this that I was driven to teach my toddler son, Jordan, any tools that would help him in his learning. I used primary methods my mother had used with my special needs sister, Susie. I had seen how well Susie had responded and I set off to teach my son the basics. When I first started working with Jordan, I truthfully had no idea he was autistic. My initial thoughts were to teach him the ABCs, 1-2-3s, colors and shapes. Mastering these skills would put him ahead of the game once he started preschool, I thought. I worked with Jordan after breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time. With repetition, Jordan caught on quickly, seemed to stay focused, and seemed to be enjoying it. Soon it became part of our routine. In time he mastered these skills. My next thoughts were to teach him how to spell. I went to my favorite store (the teacher’s store) and bought flashcards that taught nouns and verbs. I followed the same routine and quizzed Jordan after meals and snack time. We did the flashcards in a sequential order and, when he was able to master the words, I started to put the words together: the boy, the girl, the dog. Then I would add on to that: The dog barks; The boy plays. We continued to build as he mastered his lessons: The boy plays on the swing. While using flashcards and blocks for visual aid, I added subjects like math: 1 + 1 = 2; 2 + 2 = 4. This was also built upon. I had heard that the brains of children, from newborns up to the age of five years old, are like little sponges. So I kept filling him with information; if he rejected a subject, I’d put it aside and try another way or another subject. We started off playing basic games like matching. I’d be consistent until that was mastered, and then I would look for a higher level game to try. For example, we would sing and dance Simon Says, so he learned to follow directions through observation and listening. We would play Duck, Duck Goose, and Ring around the Rosy. To make it more interesting and fun, we would get the neighborhood friends to play along. Even baking had a bigger purpose than the reward of eating cookies. For instance, I would bake cookies and decorate them with different sprinkles. Jordan would frost the first cookie using the color blue. I would then instruct him to frost the cookies using the other colors, red and yellow for instance, to help him follow directions, and then I would reward him by allowing him to eat the cookies. Believe me this wasn’t always easy and there were meltdowns. I would give him space and try again later. Consistency and perseverance were the keys. On fieldtrips to the farms, I’d start again with the basics: “There’s a cow Jordan, what does a cow say?” “Moo” “What does a cow make?” “You drink milk and you put milk in your cereal.” “Can you say milk?” “Can you say cereal?” Every moment would turn into a teaching experience that was simultaneously interesting and fun. All along I was really only doing what I thought all other parents were doing with their own children. I noticed little “cute things” Jordan began doing. Like spinning or doing this “curly shuffle dance” which consisted of him repeating a word, then taking two steps back, stomping his feet in rhythm, and returning two steps forward for his next word. I also noticed that he was scanning toys past his eyes. These behaviors seemed to be nothing more than little cute “quirks.” In hindsight, however, all the pieces were there – he was on the spectrum. Now that I am armed with more information, I believe I can make a difference with this puzzle we call autism. situation. So I guess it was time to swim. If I sank, I would take my child down with me. Now, looking back at my childhood, I feel everything has come full circle. I actually took the methods my mother used and applied them to my own child. I had seen Susie go from a vegetable to a functioning adult. So I put no limits on my own child, persevered on a daily basis, and let him fly without limits. Not every day was easy, and a lot of times I would have to start over from the beginning. But I treaded the waters. Today, Jordan is integrated into a regular classroom setting. Today is nothing
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compared to the nightmares of the past. Jordan is now a gifted athlete. He is a great bowler, and even made the All-Star Team in his rookie year of baseball. He loves sports and follows football, baseball, wrestling and basketball. He does obsess on sports, but socially, this is acceptable…he could be obsessing over fire hydrants or the Civil War. Jordan wants to go to Notre Dame and I believe he can. One day while watching Oprah, she recalled a story where she was constantly being reprimanded for talking in class. She took her obsession and made it her career. I’m following the same logic.
My son’s obsession with sports and statistics may one day make him a great professional athlete, and, who knows, maybe his second career could be as a great sportscaster! So really what I’ve learned and would like to pass on to others is what I found in the words of Calvin Coolidge: “Press on; nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; the world is full of unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
The Autism Perspective