Autism: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities
Like all parents, George Grant spends a fair amount of time watching over his son. George waits patiently for “windows to randomly open” into his son Kofi’s mind. This creates opportunities to step in and help whenever the teenager seems ready to develop new skills. “I have formed a model of how he learns,” George says.
George, a native of Ghana, has been in the U.S. for more than two decades. Kofi, 14, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old and was slow to walk and talk. But with George’s guidance and creativity, Kofi is making steady progress in communication, social skills and self-sufficiency.
“Kofi started speechless. Through interaction and stimulation, he now talks more than I do,” George says. When Kofi started reading a year ago, George, 57, saw this new interest as a window of opportunity. He made a book for Kofi on his iPad, a personal story with bits about their trip to Florida and appearances by his teachers and friends. “He reads it fluently,” George says proudly.
Managing expectations had been George’s biggest challenge in dealing with autism. But he cleared that hurdle when he learned to accept the reality that his son will always have autism.
That acceptance came when Kofi graduated from elementary school and the teachers presented a slide show with three photos of each child – at birth, as a toddler and recently.
George remembers that Kofi easily fit in with his classmates in the first photo. But as he aged, the differences between him and his classmates became dramatically apparent. When the lights went on after the presentation, George had to quickly wipe away his tears.
“I had to accept that this is who he is and that it’s an open-ended commitment.” George realized he needed to accept his son’s diagnosis and organize his life around that. “Focus on the day-to-day stuff rather than moan about what might have been,” he says. “It’s like a level of salvation.”
He vowed that would be “the last time I would cry or lose sleep over autism.”
George, a single dad with two other grown children, changed careers from engineering to social media consulting so he could be with Kofi when he isn’t in school. Now, it’s all about small steps.
“I consider myself privileged, with a front-row seat to the wonder of nature as it slowly unfolds in a healing process,” he says. “As a result, I am happier and less stressed.”
Before Kofi’s diagnosis, George knew nothing about autism. “It was not in my world,” he says. He enrolled in programs at the Judson Center in Royal Oak that taught him about the needs of an autistic child. With support from the center, Kofi learned to play and developed skills such as following objects with his eyes and pointing at specific things in the room. “With autism you have to work for everything,” George says.
Sometimes, George admits, you have to learn from your mistakes. For years, he had been rewarding Kofi’s speech development with unhealthy treats, such as soda. Kofi ended up overweight and at risk of Type 2 diabetes. George’s first reaction was guilt, but then he got to work, seeing another window opening. His doctor gave him a lengthy list of dietary recommendations that he pared down to three simple guidelines – low fat, low salt and high fiber. Kofi’s new favorite? Fish and spinach stew, served with high-fiber bread or brown rice or sometimes as a sandwich with whole wheat bread.
The two also began exercising more, walking two evenings a week, hitting the local swimming pool and going to the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland on Saturday mornings. As a result, Kofi lost 40 pounds. “His new nickname at school is Slim,” George beams. “And I lost some 20 pounds in the process.” The walks offered an added bonus – Kofi learned to read by studying billboards and road signs along the way.
Acceptance is key
George has advice for parents following him on this road: “Acceptance of autism is the bedrock of my relationship with Kofi. My goal is for him to be happy by being as independent as he can learn to be. I am thankful for each small step that he makes, even as I seize the opportunity to explore further. It is not going to stop me from what I want to do. It has brought out the strength in me.”
Help for children with Autism
The Judson Center, with locations in Flint, Redford, Ann Arbor, Warren and Royal Oak, provides support for individuals with autism as well as their families. This includes:
• Behavioral analysis
• Summer programs
• Play dates
• Parent support groups
HAP can also help. Contact the Behavioral Health Management or call (800) 444-5755 to learn more about autism coverage specific to your plan.