FORT POLK, La — Alona Washington, military spouse, says supporting her son with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be tough given the nature of military life, but with acceptance, education and the available military resources, she’s seen her son, Isaiah Washington, flourish.
“I first found out when we were stationed in Hawaii in 2007. My son was three years old then, and we had joined a playgroup.”
The playgroup met once per week and focused on sensory and interactive play with the children, she said.
“I noticed that some of the other kids the same age as my son were developing quickly.”
At first, Washington said she thought the differences were due to varied learning paces and styles. After a few months of attending the playgroups, however, Washington noticed her son’s speech and motor skills were still not developing.
“That’s when I brought my concerns to his pediatrician.”
She said the pediatrician conducted a general assessment, which consisted of questions focused on key developmental milestones from the newborn through toddler stages.
“Once I completed the general assessment, the doctor asked if his team could ‘dig deeper,’ and that’s when early intervention came in with a psychiatrist. It was after the psychiatrist’s assessment at Lackland Air Force Base that my son was officially diagnosed with Moderate ASD, with intellectual disability and speech impairment.”
Once she received the diagnosis, Washington said she started researching ASD on Google, and also began to feel guilty.
“I beat myself up at first: I questioned whether I had done something wrong. I eventually came to the realization that it happens. I came to accept it and focused on the help my son needed.”
The early intervention team helped place Isaiah into weekly speech therapy and a half-day preschool program, so he could interact with other kids, said Washington.
Looking back, Washington said she doesn’t feel like she could’ve noticed the signs any sooner than she did, as ASD wasn’t well known or understood at that time.
“As a first-time parent, with my husband deployed at the same time, I didn’t know enough to have noticed the signs, but now I know all of them.”
Washington said some of the first signs of autism in children include not making eye contact or not responding to their name being called, even after several attempts.
“Another early sign of autism is slapping their hands together or twisting their wrists, which stems from sensory issues. I noticed that my son wasn’t picking up toys with two hands — he was using his hands in a different way,” Washington said.
Parents of kids with ASD can often help their child at home by implementing structured schedules for their kids, Washington said, as change is often stressful.
“For Isaiah, changes in routine can lead to meltdowns or sometimes shutting down. In those moments when change upsets him, he doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”
Being a military Family comes with frequent changes, whether it’s an upcoming permanent change of station or a parent’s deployment, military kids are asked to adapt to these transitions.
“Being a military Family was one of my biggest concerns for my son; the PCS moves have been difficult for him.”
Washington said that their first PCS wasn’t much of an issue, as Isaiah was too young to really recognize the changes around him, but their second move was a different story.
“The second move hit him really hard. He was older and was able to notice that his parents were packing everything into boxes, and it was the first time he had to leave friends that he’d made.”
When they arrived at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, Washington said Isaiah kept telling his new teachers that he was ready to go back to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska — that he didn’t belong in that new school.
“That kind of transitional phase is hard with children with ASD, but we have to keep talking to them. It’s all about understanding,” she said.
Another difficult transition for her son, she said, was during her husband’s rest and relaxation and upon his homecoming at the end of his deployment.
“Even at my husband’s homecoming, Isaiah looked at his father blankly, as if he were asking ‘who is this guy?’”
Washington said that it took her son six months to get acquainted with his father again.
“It was hard to go through, but I told my husband it would take some time — we just needed to have patience,” she said.
Isaiah is 15 years old now, and Washington says he’s developed well with his speech and motor skills.
“He’s come a long way from nonverbal to actually speaking now.”
She said his speech development came slowly but steadily, first uttering words and then being able to string sentences together.
Now, Isaiah particularly likes discussing Beyblades, a popular spin-top toy, said Washington, and he can walk someone through its construction and function.
“If you bring them up, he can tell you a million things about Beyblades,” she said.
Isaiah now goes to Leesville High School, and Washington said he has resources at his disposal at the school.
“He’s receiving special education services in an enclosed classroom with a modified schedule and smaller classroom sizes. He also continues speech therapy through the school,” she said.
Augmenting what the school provides, Washington said Isaiah also receives additional speech and occupational therapy in Leesville, but that he primarily receives services through the school.
As a way to advocate for her son and ASD awareness, Washington said she began participating in fundraisers for autism-related causes shortly after her son was diagnosed.
“When we were in Nebraska, I raised $600 for the Autism Alliance, which helped families pay for speech and occupational therapies. It also helps other people understand that there is this disability called autism that deservers better understanding and acceptance.”
Autism Awareness Month is observed during April each year, and Washington said she was surprised that she had a hard time finding an ASD awareness event, even as far away as New Orleans, Louisiana.
Washington said her next move was to call Chris Barrett, Fort Polk Exceptional Family Member Program system navigator, to get more information on Autism Awareness Month events. After confirming nothing was scheduled in the immediate area, Washington said Chris helped to coordinate the Chalk the Walk event held at Honor Field this year.
“Advocating and spreading awareness is important. There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding Autism, and the only way to combat that is with education and understanding.
“The best advice I can give a parent who’s just found out their child has ASD is to do research, see your child’s doctor and find out the resources your child needs. We all want what’s best for our kids, and the first step is educating yourself and understanding what they have.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the EFMP or you’d like to learn more about available resources, you can visit the EFMP website or call them at (337) 531-2840/7456.