Kiddo Spotlight: Sawyer Shines in Interdisciplinary Autism Therapy Program at Hopebridge
March 08, 2021
March 08, 2021
Patience is a virtue, and it’s one autism parents know all too well. From working to build their child’s patience, to coping with their own expectations for development, the autism community has been forced to grow strength in this area. The waiting game is especially stressful, however, when families are ready to take the next steps to seek answers and support for their child, only to find themselves on a lengthy wait list for a diagnostic evaluation or applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy).
This scenario became Tiauna’s reality – and one of her frustrations – as she attempted to set up her own child for success. Thankfully, that all changed when she found Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers in Denver, Colorado.
“My son had been waitlisted for so long for an official diagnosis and the early interventions we participated in at the time were pretty minimal. Plus, due to COVID-19, they were restricted on what they could do for him,” said Tiauna. “Hopebridge was able to get us in for an evaluation within a week of expressing interest and once we had Sawyer’s diagnosis, we were able to begin services immediately.”
Tiauna told us she was fortunate to have friends whose children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which gave her insight into the community. Because of her knowledge of the signs of autism, she had an inkling her son, Sawyer, was on the spectrum even as an infant. For instance, she noticed Sawyer didn’t make eye contact and would instead look just past her. He also had a lot of challenges around feeding; refusing to taste the food and gagging on everything. Even providing him with formula was difficult.
“Sawyer had a pretty traumatic entry to this world, so at first, I was unsure whether his challenges were related to his tough birthing experience or something more,” said Tiauna.
To add to the questions, Sawyer’s development was strong in some areas. He surprisingly began walking at only 8 months of age, which was even earlier than his older sister. He was happy and outgoing, and the type of kid who would run up to others at the park to give them a hug, which was a hard opposite to some of the common autism myths she had heard. His doctors said he was meeting or ahead on most developmental milestones, except for speech.
By his first birthday, he only said “mama” and “dada.” By 18 months, the word, “no” was added to his language, but that was about it. At this point, the pediatrician recommended speech therapy, but Tiauna pressed on her other areas of concern. Sawyer still had trouble with eye contact, responding to his name and a few stims, all of which she knew could be symptoms of autism. Together with his physicians, they decided on an evaluation for early intervention, followed by a diagnostic evaluation.
“His doctor and I were pretty sure he had autism, but I had a tough time getting a formal diagnosis here in Colorado. We were able to go through the county and state for early intervention services, but when it came to the actual diagnosis and autism-specific support, we kept getting waitlisted. I was told we would wait anywhere from four to eight months for an assessment.”
When Tiauna learned about Hopebridge, she jumped at the opportunity to get him in for autism testing and care.
“It is tough when kids are going undiagnosed and really need the help,” said Tiauna. “It was such a relief when I finally got in touch with Hopebridge and they made the process very quick and smooth.”
In about three months since then, Sawyer is already making strides at Hopebridge. He began services at the University Hills center before transferring to the therapy network’s new center in Westminster three weeks later.
This “ball of energy” – as his mother describes him – is fun, funny and will turn 3 years old this spring. He is obsessed with monster trucks and construction vehicles. He is also a big fan of Blippi, dinosaurs, bubbles and Play-Doh.
Sawyer is a happy, spunky kid, but his young life is not always easy. To help him overcome some of his challenges and get the most out of life, he is enrolled in a personalized program of care at Hopebridge that blends multiple therapies aimed at meeting his needs. Through the Hopebridge360 model, he was not only able to receive a diagnosis, but his therapy team currently focuses on a complementary mix of ABA therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, plus will provide more targeted feeding therapy soon.
“Before we found Hopebridge, we looked into other clinics, but they only offered one or two therapies at each place. It was very spread out and difficult to arrange. I was relieved to find out we could get all of his services handled under one roof at Hopebridge,” said Tiauna.
As part of the program, Tiauna worked with Sawyer’s Hopebridge multidisciplinary team to determine his initial goals for therapy.
Together, they decided elopement was one area where he needed immediate attention. Grocery stores, parks, parking lots and even areas near streets and traffic have been problematic for his family, as Sawyer will take off running. Stopping this wandering would often lead to meltdowns and embarrassing situations, as Tiauna told us they have unfortunately been asked to leave public settings when this occurs.
While this is still the toughest challenge for Sawyer and his family – who wants him to understand that eloping is dangerous – he is progressing. During his most recent parent training session, his behavior analyst shared with Tiauna that Sawyer made strong gains in this area. He met his goal of remaining 20 minutes with his therapist. When his mother talked to him about his achievement, he expressed pride in himself—which is why we do what we do!
Effective communication has been another focus for Sawyer, who is now able to use it to improve other behaviors. He was not verbal for a long time, but began picking up language quickly in speech therapy even prior to joining the center. Now at Hopebridge, he has developed more sporadic language and self-conversation. His social and communication skills have also improved with support from schedules and first/then charts, which appeal to his visual learning. His family uses them at home, as well, where he can now respond to questions about his feelings and express his wants, such as “have food” and “play games.”
Sawyer’s favorite part of therapy is the on-site gym at the center, where he is not only able to work on skills he learns in occupational therapy, but also his speech and social skills. He created a friendship with one of the other boys at the center, with whom he looks forward to playing tag with each day. It has become such a highlight for Sawyer that his mom now uses it as an extra reminder and reinforcer during the tougher, tired mornings.
Through therapy, Sawyer has also been able to build his skills around transitions and aggression. New tools and reinforcers have helped him cope with changes in activity, such as getting dressed in the mornings, which used to be a struggle. While Sawyer is anything other than what could be described as “mean,” his frustrations used to lead to aggression. Since joining Hopebridge, Tiauna feels providing him with more of a voice and giving him the opportunity to make his own choices has led to a decrease in his aggressive behaviors.
The next major goal for Sawyer will be aimed at feeding, as Hopebridge brings more food specialists into the new center. He has difficulties with food aversions that often stem from texture sensitivity. If it looks funny to him, he will not touch it, let alone bring it to his mouth to taste it. Sawyer typically rotates between about three food choices at a time – such as Jello, French fries, gummies and chips – in addition to relying on pediatric nutrition drinks. The team is currently working with him to build upon his variety through the snacks and lunch his mother provides at the center.
“Though we still have some challenges, nearly everything we’ve worked on the past three months at Hopebridge has gotten significantly better,” said Tiauna. “They do a great job with him and he is over the moon with each person on his team.
“As a mom, you get nervous about stuff like that … who is around your kid and are they treating them well? Is he happy and comfortable? I’ve been skeptical about other places in the past that were not quite as nurturing, but he’s really taken to everyone at Hopebridge. They’ve gone above and beyond to make me feel comfortable that he’s safe and enjoying his time there.”
Tiauna’s experience has made her into an advocate for autism and other parents and children who are embarking on a similar journey. She wants other families to remember that autism is a spectrum.
“Not everything fits onto a checklist. People aren’t manufactured in the same way. Even children who struggle with the same challenges will be affected in different ways,” said Tiauna.
“As soon as you notice something in your child that you are curious about, get support. Take the steps to get them evaluated. It makes a huge difference and sets them up with so much more potential. I feel fortunate to have had my own opening to this world so I could get Sawyer help at an early age.”
She emphasized how important it is for parents to seek help even if they are scared, nervous or unsure what their family members might think about it. She knows it may feel uncomfortable at first, but notes that there is nothing “strange” or “wrong” about autism. Rather, the rest of the world could benefit from taking a moment to learn what is going on in the minds of those who have ASD.
“Autism is a beautiful thing. A completely neurotypical child teaches so much, but kids like Sawyer can do it in more profound ways,” said Tiauna. “Throughout all of this, he has taught me patience, love and acceptance with a deeper understanding and I am grateful for it.”
Are there behaviors or milestones you are curious about for your child? Like Tiauna, we urge parents not to wait if they have concerns. Set up your child for a brighter future at an early age by getting answers now and taking advantage of the Hopebridge360 interdisciplinary services that benefit our kiddos and their families. Fill out the quick and easy form on our website to get started sooner than later.