Matthew and Caleb Landers’ autism has taught their parentsmuch about the frustrations and joys of parenting.
For Kristin and Phillip Landers, autism isn’t just April’s health awareness focus; it defines their daily reality.
Still young newlyweds in 2002, they welcomed their oldest, Matthew, into the family a mere 18 months after they wed. And for the first year, nothing seemed amiss.
“After that I began to notice he never started pointing, waving or moving past minimal babbling,” Kristin said. “He wasn’t answering consistently to his name. He didn’t know how to play with many of his toys. He seemed lost.”
Phillip and Kristin enrolled Matthew in speech therapy at Children’s Hospital. At 26 months, he was diagnosed with autism at Mitchell’s Place.
Two years later, little brother Caleb joined the family. From ages four to seven months, Caleb experienced rapid head growth. Kristin proactively enrolled him in Milestone Therapy at Mitchell’s Place. Shortly thereafter, Caleb was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
While Kristin is quick to acknowledge that early intervention is key, she does not gloss over the frustration of the boys’ formative years.
“As a mom, you’re thrust into this world you know nothing about, and you’re trying to soak up all the knowledge you can so you can make the right therapy decisions for your child while the synapses in their brains are still making connections,” she said. “And you’re trying to change parts of their diets and talking to a variety of specialists and moms to gain information. It’s overwhelming.”
The Landers had much to learn about how to create the ideal environment, free of behavioral triggers. They learned the hard way that common family outings like dining out, even trips to the Galleria, could result in unpleasant meltdowns.
One of the most difficult challenges was trying to help Matthew learn to talk. A tireless advocate for her son, Kristin would not give up.
“I would hold two boxes up – one of cookies, the other of Goldfish – and refuse to give him the snack he wanted until he pointed to one or said the word. This could go on for 15 minutes or more with him screaming, crying, kicking and hitting. But he was making sounds and beginning to put sounds together, so we were seeing that he could form small words.”
Today, their days are more typical, filled with school, homework and extracurricular activities. Matthew, now 8 years old, is even thriving in his second year of Upward Basketball.
“I am so fortunate to have a supportive husband (Phillip) who has gone with me to a multitude of meetings, let me cry on his shoulder, handled most of the financial provision for expensive therapy, and is a wonderful, loving, engaged dad.”
And while family dynamics have become easier, Kristin still struggles with the social misconceptions about children with autism spectrum disorders.
“Not every child screaming in a store is a discipline problem. Some are ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) kids overwhelmed by the lights. Some hate the noise. Some hate all the people and may feel trapped. Some are so frustrated by their lack of language that they just scream.”
She adds that the need for compassion isn’t just for the children either.
“I’ve gotten some dirty looks because another parent or grandparent thought I was just part of the generation that let their children act out. Not so. Behaviors in public have gotten better, but we work our tails off to teach these appropriate behaviors. People need to realize that this is a different generation of kids coming up and exercise a little compassion – and maybe even a helping hand if possible.”
“And please don’t invalidate us moms by saying, ‘Everything is fine – you just worry too much.’ I heard that a lot initially when I was noticing delays, and it feels like a sucker punch when you’re already down.”
Kristin acknowledges that her faith has been the one constant helping her to be the kind of perceptive, selfless parent her boys need.
“My resume has been written. This is God’s plan for their lives. I am not supposed to try and make them live up to my expectations – but help them reach the potential that God has put within each of them. I have to observe their gifts and help them develop those gifts.”
For her oldest, it’s math, whereas Caleb, shows an aptitude for the social sciences.
And on the long days, Kristin and Phillip hold onto their good humor.
The last time they visited their grandparents, Matthew asked his granddad to help him hook up the Nintendo Wii to their television, only to hear that his grandfather had no idea.
“Granddaddy, you’re 79 years old and you can’t do this?” Matthew said.
“My dad just cracked up laughing and told me later how much it means to him now to hear Matthew make conversation – even it’s only that he’s telling my dad how bad he is at technology,” Kristin said.