TRIPLER ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Hawaii - Col. Bill Soliz and his wife Jacqueline suspected pretty early on that something was different about their second child, William.
“We had William’s speech delay evaluated at 18 months,” said Col. Soliz, Regional Health Command-Pacific chief of staff. “They said he was fine, but during an appointment at 2 years old, he was diagnosed with autism.”
It was 1998, and Col. Soliz, then a second lieutenant, had just graduated from the Army’s physician assistant Training Program at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
“I was aware of autism from my pediatric studies, but my son didn’t meet the criteria for autism at the time,” he said. “I worked in a clinic and asked all the physicians and physician assistants if they had ever heard of a mild form of autism. Today, we clearly know it as a spectrum.”
Being in the military medical field helped the Solizes navigate the referral process, diagnostic tests, and procedures, but that didn’t make up for the lack of services available.
“We just didn’t know much about autism back then,” Col. Soliz said. “We were very thankful for the early intervention program available to us and embraced everything we could to help him.”
Helping William included turning their home into a therapy house outfitted with swings, a sandbox, scrub brushes, and learning videos he could sing and dance along to.
“We took the approach that he spends many more hours with us at home than he does in any therapy session. My wife dedicated every hour of the day to his development as well as raising our other two daughters.
“She is the real reason for William’s services, therapies, and development, and I am eternally grateful that my son has the best mother in the world,” he added.
Being able to reinforce what William was learning in therapy made all the difference for him.
“His therapy lessons were only an hour a few times a week. For someone like William, doing something only once a week is like trying something new over and over again. It was not a pleasant experience for him,” she said. “Working with him at home created habits and familiarity and reinforced what he learned during his therapy sessions.”
As William became school-aged, the Solizes began discussing his condition with him.
“We told him he would have to go to a smaller class with less students for math and English in school,” Col. Soliz said. “I did my best to explain autism and the areas that would be harder for him to grasp and where he needed more time.
“At first he was puzzled because he didn’t see himself different from any other person his age,” he said. “He quickly became aware of his challenges with social interactions, picking up on social cues, and difficulty with abstract concepts.”
Throughout his Army career the Soliz family has moved their children 11 times and went through the process of establishing a network of caregivers at each new duty station.
“Navigating the schools and medical systems in the many Army-based communities we lived was certainly a challenge. We believe we were successful because we educated ourselves about autism and became our son’s advocate. We knew him better than any teacher or physician could ever understand him. We became partners with the teachers and health care providers and fostered relationships that ultimately benefited our son’s development.”
Becoming an advocate for William paid off, the Solizes said. With lots of work, William learned to read. With lots more work, he graduated high school.
“We were very pleased to watch his internal drive to accomplish the things he has accomplished,” said Col. Soliz. “He learned how to drive and got his license and is now able to drive himself to work.”
William, now 26, lives with his parents and has worked at Home Depot for three years. He has a musical ear and his memory is very close to being photographic, which helps him create his own original music electronically on his computer.
William’s message to other autistic children is to, “Keep doing your best and don’t let big obstacles get in the way.”
Today, William openly shares with people that he is autistic; his parents wouldn’t want it any other way.
“During Autism Awareness Month, and throughout the year, we need to embrace the word and diagnosis of autism. Say it to yourself and everyone else, until it becomes natural,” said Col. Soliz.
The Soliz family has navigated the challenges and triumphs of autism and have some encouraging words for other parents in the same situation.
“Your path will be paved with lots of challenges, but also lots of rewards,” Jacqueline Soliz said. “Sometimes it’s going to feel that your child is not improving, even though you are giving 110%, but don’t lose hope or get discouraged. They will always surprise you. Celebrate every little milestone.”