• Tonio Terlaje, 3, right, plays with his pet dinosaur as his father 1st Lt. Antonio Terlaje, older brother, Xavier, 5, and mother, Rose, look on June 14 at their JBLM home. Tonio was diagnosed with autism when he was 22 months old.

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    Tonio Terlaje, 3, right, plays with his pet dinosaur as his father 1st Lt. Antonio Terlaje, older brother, Xavier, 5, and mother, Rose, look on June 14 at their JBLM home. Tonio was diagnosed with autism when he was 22 months old.

  • 1st Lt. Antonio Terlaje, right, and his son Tonio, 3, play with a toy as Antonio’s older son Xavier, 5, watches television June 14 at their JBLM home. Tonio was diagnosed with autism when he was 22 months old.

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    1st Lt. Antonio Terlaje, right, and his son Tonio, 3, play with a toy as Antonio’s older son Xavier, 5, watches television June 14 at their JBLM home. Tonio was diagnosed with autism when he was 22 months old.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- First Lieutenant Antonio Terlaje and his wife, Rose, would not trade their lives for anyone or anything, but some days they wish things were different.

Sometimes the staring, the whispering and blatantly rude comments get the best of them, and they wonder what life would be like if others spent a day in their shoes " just one day. Maybe then eyes would open, hearts would soften and things would change.

The Terlajes had a feeling early on that their second-born son was lagging developmentally, but pediatricians reassured them it was normal for some to trail behind. A phone call from day care changed all of that.

Twenty-month-old Tonio had been restrained after banging his head repeatedly on the floor at day care. His forehead was swollen and bruised, so Rose rushed him to the hospital where he underwent several tests and evaluations.

The Family was relieved to learn an MRI indicated no damage to Tonio’s developing brain, but other test results were not so comforting.

A comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, among other tests, confirmed the Terlaje’s suspicions that their son was more than “a little behind.”

At 22 months old, Tonio was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“I was shocked,” Rose said. “We knew something wasn’t right, but we had no idea what to expect.”

Antonio said he was completely unfamiliar with autism prior to his son’s diagnosis. To him, autism was a condition he occasionally saw portrayed in movies.

“It was just a subject matter for a movie plot,” said the infantry officer assigned to 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. “But when it became personal and affected our child, it became a whole different story.”

Now 3, Tonio is a lot like other toddlers in many ways.

His favorite character is Elmo, he loves playing with toy dinosaurs and he enjoys making animal noises.

He laughs and plays like other children his age. It’s when Tonio gets upset or tries to communicate that autism gets in the way.

Autism has an adverse effect on Tonio’s ability to formulate words. His limited vocabulary often leaves him frustrated, and that frustration usually leads to Tonio banging his head.

The Terlajes said it’s one of the most difficult effects of the disorder.

“When he’s in a good mood, it’s easy,” Antonio said. “But when he’s angry and he can’t tell you why he’s angry, he starts banging his head and it’s all a guessing game.”

The second " and perhaps most difficult " challenge of having an autistic child comes from the ignorance of some adults who do not understand.

Stares, heads shaking, gossip, accusations of bad parenting ... the Terlajes have seen and heard it all.

One recent incident at the playground ended with someone calling the military police.

Unable to verbalize his frustration, Rose said Tonio pulled a child’s hair after being upset about something.

Standing just a few feet away from him, Rose quickly intervened and grabbed her son’s hand to release it from the girl’s hair, but the situation escalated.

Parents on the playground appeared outraged and accused Tonio of abusive behavior, warning their children to stay away from him.

Rose tried to explain his condition and that he meant no harm, but the parents took matters into their own hands by calling law enforcement.

The situation resolved itself and no charges resulted, but the ordeal left Rose feeling discouraged and emotionally exhausted.

“We can’t keep him shielded from the world,” Rose said. “Other parents don’t know how hard it is. They don’t realize every little thing we do revolves around him.”

While autism does not have a cure, children like Tonio who are diagnosed early in life have a better chance at adapting and thriving compared to those diagnosed later, said Mary Herrera, Exceptional Family Member Program manager on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“It’s going to depend where they are on the spectrum and then just how they respond to interventions,” Herrera said.

The Terlajes are doing all they can to help ensure Tonio is given a fair chance at life. From various therapies and support groups to a special education program and immersion in a child development center, Tonio is receiving every opportunity his parents can find in hopes of his eventually becoming independent.

“Everything we want him to be able to do, we’re going to have to fight for,” Rose said.

In the meantime, the Terlajes have advice for others struggling to understand what Families like theirs are going through.

“Please save the snide remarks and smirks,” Rose said. “An acknowledgment like a nod or smile that you’re not judging us is OK, but we don’t need you to make comments.”

“It’s harder on (the autistic child) more than it is on anybody else,” Antonio added. “That’s the most important thing to remember.”

Laura M. Levering: laura.may.levering@us.army.mil

Page last updated Fri June 24th, 2011 at 16:15