Julian Roel Gonzalez is three years old. He is nonverbal autistic child and attends the Exceptional Student Education pre-kindergarten program at Vineyards Elementary School. He loves the water and swinging on swings in the park. He loves to cuddle. He is a great climber and runner and loves meat. Julian enjoys school and loves riding the school bus to Vineyards Elementary where he takes part in the Exceptional Student Program. Julian is also a big brother to Dylan, who is a one year old.
Julian was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in November 2009 four months before his third birthday. “By this point there were so many red flags in his development that in a way we were kind of expecting his diagnosis. At the same time we were hoping to be wrong and once it was confirmed it was very overwhelming,” relates Julian’s mom, Diana Lucia Gonzalez. Julian underwent a series of tests to rule out any other potential diseases. An electroencephalogram (EEG), an MRI of his brain, a chromosomal count, and a hearing test all came back normal. This meant that the diagnosis would be based on his behavior evaluations. Autism spectrum disorder usually is diagnosed when a child is between two and three years of age.
“It was a sad and scary moment,” when they received the diagnosis, Diana Lucia remembers. “We immediately thought about his future and that it what scared me the most. I was sad because he is so perfect to me, and I do not want him to miss out on anything. I started reading like crazy. I have read more books [since the diagnosis] than in my entire life. There is a lot of information and programs and different therapies, so learning is my full time job aside from being a mom.”
By being open with family and friends, Diana Lucia has found much support and understanding, and discovered this was a way to gain more acceptance of Julian’s behavior. She also found that by learning as much as she could about autism, she could establish healthy routines.
The Gonzales’ pediatrician referred them to Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS) for the Early Steps Program, for children up to three years old. FDLRS set up a hearing test and provided home visits by an Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist, as well as speech and occupational therapy services. The occupational therapy is important because it helps him with sensory processing. Diana Lucia speaks highly of these services and of the transitional program that Julian participated in at Grace Place. That program, Bright Beginnings, is an 8-week inclusionary program where Julian was able to sample a school-like atmosphere with other children his age.
Diana Lucia’s research paid off in many ways. She has attended helpful workshops and discovered other therapy programs. “For most of the services there is an application process and evaluations, so you need to be patient,” she says. “But I believe that early intervention will help my son to have a better quality of life, and this is what I want for him.
“Things are changing constantly and as a result we have to be our child’s voice and strength,” she adds. “Early intervention works and even if they are baby steps, any gain for a child with special needs is a huge event.”
The Gonzales family has found support through the Collier County Autism Support Group, which is a valuable source of information about local services, and the Family Network on Disabilities.
Diana Lucia is bilingual, and she is working to establish a Hispanic support group for moms with children in the autism spectrum. “That way I can share any good information or resource with the non-English speaking mothers.” The group email address is email@example.com and it has the same name in Facebook. Diana Lucia also shares information in her blog, at http://autismoenswflorida.blogspot.com/2010/03/early-intervention-is-key-to-improving.html.
Diana Lucia’s effort are just one example of the sharing and caring that takes place between and among special needs families. It is a reminder to parents that they are not alone, that there are many bright spots, resources, and many kinds of support available to help them on this unexpected journey.