Autism: A story of hope

Six-year-old Ryan Nichols loves to talk about his favorite toys, which recently were scattered throughout his family’s living room.

He says he’s especially fond of his NASCAR toys and Leapster gamepad, which he plays with in his bedroom.

Ryan also has been to Walt Disney World twice and often wears a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt he got there.

His parents, Frank and Dione Nichols, hinge on every word Ryan speaks to them. It’s something they waited years to hear.

Their son, who has autism, now is reclaiming his childhood thanks to ongoing speech and occupational therapy, his parents said.

“When you start, there’s so much to work on,” Dione said. “We’ve made great progress, but the problem is the expectations keep going up each year.”

Ryan attends a full-day kindergarten program. He also receives one hour each of speech and occupational therapy once weekly after school at Easter Seals New Hampshire in Dover.

Ryan has made new friends in his class and is just learning how to ask appropriate questions so he can converse with his classmates, his mother said.

For example, Ryan is learning to ask, “Any questions?” after making a show and tell presentation, his father said.

There are so many things Ryan does now that he couldn’t when he was 3 and 4 years old, Dione said.

“We wondered if he would ever ask for a present” at Christmastime, she said.

This Christmas, Ryan asked for a Lego airplane. He also opened his presents in less than an hour on Christmas morning, his father said.

Like many children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Ryan is sensitive to various sounds, such as the microwave or creaking on the stairs.

Dione said there was a time when Ryan couldn’t stand to listen to the car radio.

Frank said he also had trouble if they were in a store and the public address system came on.

Watching videos like Disney’s “Little Einsteins,” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” helped Ryan break down different sounds and music, Dione said.

“This was the first year we could play Christmas music in the house,” Frank said.

Dione said Ryan “was a very, very happy baby, pretty easy going,” but she started to notice signs that he was not developing properly early on.

For example, when he was a year old, he didn’t wave goodbye or point at objects like other children do at that age, she said.

At 2 1/2, Ryan would say some words, “but I would never hear those words again,”she said.

At 3 1/2 years old, Ryan talked more, but mostly would repeat phrases he heard while watching videos, his mother said.

If she asked him “Do you want waffles or pancakes?” Ryan would reply, “Waffles or pancakes” and not answer her question, she said.

A former preschool teacher with some knowledge of childhood development, she found herself doing more research online and in books. Little by little, she came to realize her son showed signs of autism spectrum disorder – a diagnosis later confirmed by the Seacoast Child Development Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where Ryan was evaluated.

Dione said it’s taken a lot of hard work and patience to help their son reach this stage of his development.

One of the most difficult aspects was figuring the right type of therapy to help their son learn to communicate and engage the world around him, she said.

Her son attended a preschool program offered by the local school district, but his mother said she wasn’t satisfied with the services they provided.

At age 4, Ryan attended the Dover Childrens Center kindergarten program for a year and received more than two hours of speech and occupational therapy weekly.

“Ryan was very fortunate to have a wonderful kindergarten teacher,” his mother said. “They focused more on pure childhood development.”

They helped Ryan learn to play with other children and made sure Ryan always was involved with class activities, she said.

“At that time, Ryan would not do an activity for more than a minute or two,” she said.

The teachers made several possible activities available at once, with roughly six things for him to do at any given time. They would go from one thing to the other as needed to guide Ryan, his mother said.

At home, she and her husband continuously worked with their son to reinforce the skills and learning techniques used at school, she said.
Dione learned the best way to teach Ryan how to do a simple task like drawing a picture was to break it down. Instead of asking him to draw a face, she would practice helping him draw the eyes. Little by little, Ryan improved his speech and play skills, she said.

Frank said they’ve also learned there is no hourglass that governs how much their son can learn.

Many doctors and childhood experts told the couple their son had to master certain skills by age 6 or his learning window would close.

But Ryan’s speech and occupational therapists told the couple the brain is malleable, and people never lose the ability to learn, even if they have autism, Frank said.

“You got to crack the code” when it comes to helping children with autism learn, Dione said. She compared the process of trial and error to what Thomas Edison said about creating the light bulb. Edison used to say he found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb before he discovered the right way, Dione said.

But the couple says they by no means believe they’ve found the best or only way to help other families who have children with autism. If there’s one common thread other people can take from the Nichols’ situation, it would be hard work and never giving up, no matter what, they said.

“We had plenty of bleak days,” Frank added.

Now Ryan’s father said he feels more optimistic his son will have a good life.

“It gives me hope for a better tomorrow,” Frank said.

As Ryan heads toward first grade, his parents say there are still many challenges that remain to help their son build his social and communication skills. But they add that they also feel they’ll meet those challenges based on what they’ve experienced so far.

“I’m proud of Ryan because he’s worked so hard,” his mother said.

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