"Our New Family"

Until a year ago, I was scared and helpless. I was scared that my 12-year-old son Austin would never graduate from seventh grade, and I had no idea how to help him.

“That’s just Austin.”

Ever since Austin was in pre-school, the unwritten social rules of childhood play were extremely confusing to him. He would often wander away to play by himself, as if he were lost in his own little world.

As Austin grew older, he continued to struggle with making friends his own age. Austin couldn’t navigate social situations – the common sense things that we take for granted were missing. He would often speak out in class, talking a mile-a-minute and trying to control every conversation. Austin also had a habit of invading people’s personal space. This made his peers and teachers uncomfortable at times. Being quirky at age 12 doesn’t really help you make friends.

“That’s just Austin,” his classmates and teachers would affectionately say.

Everyone always knew Austin was a “little off,” but no one had any explanations. Austin realized he was different from his friends. He wanted to know why, so I made him a promise: I would find out.

“Would anyone ever truly ‘get’ him?”

My job in the U.S. military means frequent relocations. This means no long-term friends, teachers, or pediatricians. For years, I brought Austin to doctors to find answers. Doctors didn’t even have the chance to know Austin long enough to help explain his behavior. But we never gave up.

Our luck changed while we were stationed in Tennessee. One doctor mentioned “high-functioning autism” for the first time. I had no idea what that meant, but it fit Austin’s symptoms perfectly. Could we be onto something?

Two months later, we were relocated to Virginia. Devastated, we had to start over.

“He may never pass seventh grade.”

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Virginia’s school system was different. Here, students had to pass their state assessment tests and classes to advance to the next grade. Austin always had a hard time passing his classes due to poor time management skills, poor organization skills, the inability to transition from one thing to the next, and not being able to process information as quickly as needed to be successful in school. It was never because he didn’t “get” the information, but because he had a hard time producing the work to show that he “got it.”

What Austin was good at was the state assessment. He always passed with flying colors, which allowed him to move on to the next grade. However, if Austin didn’t pass his seventh grade classes, he would be held back until he did. His grades had to get better. I was petrified that Austin would be a seventh grader forever.

“Our New Family”

My search for answers intensified. With autism in mind, I researched and researched. I finally found my answer one day at work. While flipping through the Combined Federal Campaign catalogue of charities, I noticed May Institute’s autism services for military families. Autism services…for military families? Was this made for us? I called the number I had found on the website. Within moments of explaining our situation, I felt as if I had finally found someone who understood my frustration and who truly wanted to help us. Two months later, I walked through the door at May Institute. Immediately I knew this would be different. I knew we would find our answers here.

The professionals at May Institute were not afraid to enter Austin’s world and hear his thoughts, his questions, his history. They didn’t make him feel like something was “wrong” with him. They understood him and were able to clearly grasp Austin’s intellectual and social abilities.

Two days later, we left their Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic with a document that confirmed Austin’s high-functioning autism diagnosis. We also had a treatment plan and next steps that we could understand and believe in. To me, that document is everything. I call it our roadmap.

And we’ve been traveling down that road ever since, much further than we could have ever imagined.

We consider May Institute our “new family” because they saved ours. When we returned home, Austin and I began working with a May Institute behavioral therapist named Kim. Kim worked with Austin on social cues, how to ease into relationships, and how to focus on the task at hand and not get overwhelmed.

Austin knows that I follow our roadmap, too. Kim introduced me to Austin’s world – how he understands, processes, and communicates. I know now that I need to ask in a different way for him to respond.

Austin learned that it’s okay to be himself. He no longer feels “off.” He feels as if someone has opened the gates to his ABILITY, not his disability. May Institute opened my eyes to what I could do for Austin and how we can work together. For the first time in our lives, Austin and I are able to understand each other. May Institute has and will continue to mean the world to my family.

Next stop: Eighth Grade!

I never imagined that we would get here. With the help of May Institute, Austin passed seventh grade with B’s and C’s. He even had the skills and confidence to go away to resident summer camp this year. In the fall, I will proudly walk my son into the eighth grade, reflecting on the accomplishments we have made over the past year. Our lives have fallen into place, and we have May Institute to thank.

I am so honored to be part of this family.

— Laura, military parent

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