A STAR and SMILES

Autism was about as strange to me as Timbuktu. I had never been to Timbuktu, and I had never heard the word “autism” before in my life. Our firstborn son was diagnosed with this disorder in 1985 on a cold and rainy day in March. Landon was 3½ years old. Our lives changed completely when that one word was addressed to us.

We all want what’s best for our children. It’s a priority that comes from love.  Most of us will never forget the first time many things in our lives happened. I remember the first time tasting chocolate. I remember being totally terrified when boarding the bicycle after my father removed those safe training wheels. And I will always remember hearing “Landon” and “autism” in the same breath. I’m certain that parents of disabled children will never forget the day they got their diagnosis. When Landon was diagnosed, it was 4 or 5 out of every 10,000. Today we know the diagnosis rate is 1 in 150.

I always welcome questions from people wanting to know about Landon’s autism. I explain to them it’s like trying to drive in a snowstorm with all those flakes smacking into the windshield making it difficult to see. That’s what it’s like for autistic people:  everything coming at you and trying to absorb it all and filter through it makes tasks very difficult. Who wouldn’t get frustrated in such situations?

We’ve come a long way since March of 1985. Landon is now 26 (soon to turn 27), and that’s hard for me to believe. I thank God that we now have so many resources available to families of those with special needs. I’m often asked how I did it all those years, especially when online services, cell phones and instant access to information weren’t available. One parent said it to me, “It must have been like walking in the dark, without a flashlight.” My response was to think about what the parents of the 1940s and 1950s and even earlier must have gone through. Then, mothers were blamed for their child’s condition and their behaviors. To me, those mothers are heroes.

A woman whom I call my hero introduced me to a wonderful concept, the STAR concept. I have used it throughout Landon’s life, and I’ve shared it with countless families. STAR stands for STOP-THINK-ACT-REWARD! This concept works. Children do not like the word “NO,” especially those children with disabilities. This is a wonderful tool to place on desktops, refrigerators, and any place where a child can see it. When Landon needed to be redirected, it was always: Stop; let’s Think about it (what are we doing and what should we be doing); Act upon that which needs to be addressed or completed; and pending the completion of the action, a great big verbal Reward, “GREAT JOB. WELL DONE!!!!!!”

Once again, it’s a wonderful tool for positive reinforcement. STAR can work with siblings, as well. Brenton, Landon’s brother who is two years younger than Landon, did well with this concept, too. As Brenton grew, he became excellent with the STAR approach toward Landon. I now smile as Brenton uses this wonderful approach with his own children who have no disabilities.

I enforced discipline by using a beanbag chair for time out. That worked quite well. The times that really became very difficult for Landon were when he wasn’t able to “filter” all that was going on around him. We both would take time out and sit; and I would light candles. This step was only initiated when he was extremely frustrated.

It would usually take about 10 minutes to help settle him down and unwind. I could see the stress leaving him.

Most schools just didn’t have the knowledge and resources available to provide what was necessary for my son, a child with autism, to flourish and progress. Basically, the entire system was centered on and geared toward special education tools, so I decided to homeschool Landon. I remember calling the state’s Board of Education and asking them if they had a curriculum of any sort that would be helpful to me in homeschooling Landon. They didn’t have a clue what I was even referring to. There were many reasons why I decided to homeschool my son, but I knew that it was going to take immense effort to incorporate what would particularly define and meet Landon’s total needs. Homeschooling was not such a popular call back then. I am so thankful that God gave me the tenacity to do what was needed for Landon. I know today this is one of the reasons why Landon has a quality filled life. For us this was absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, the correct thing to do.

I asked God for a direction and it came. I would use Landon’s strengths, focus on them and accelerate the things he could do. Landon and I would not get lost in what he could not do. It made perfect sense to me to utilize skills that he was comfortable with and constantly to reinforce him with high verbal praise when the skill was completed correctly.

My house rule is that every day we are all a work in progress, so life skills were incorporated daily. Landon was able to master those very quickly. Morning began with making his bed, dressing himself, brushing his teeth; then on to the breakfast menu we would go.  Always interjecting high verbal praise, I smiled and told him, ”Great job, Landon.” I have consistently used a positive approach in the teaching of my son. It truly makes a difference in leading him forward.

Landon’s gift was and still is his fabulous memory. I took total advantage of that beautiful gift. He mastered the alphabet, numbers, shapes, and beyond in those visual areas.

The pronunciation of sounds was more difficult, as this is a prominent feature of autism. A wonderful speech pathologist came into our lives; he certainly left an impact upon Landon’s language skills. Perseverance in using language skills was very important and critical toward Landon’s communication. We have worked diligently on that to this day, and we are still making wonderful strides in the language area. I would put words on blank cards and have him say and repeat the word. Then we would search and find the meaning. Even now, Landon truly loves to read Webster’s Dictionary. He always wants to learn new words. What a joy it is to me, as I imagine that it would be to any parent.

Mathematics was and still is difficult for Landon, but I was able to teach Landon measurements, while at the same time enjoying the art of cooking with him. He loved it!!! We still have a blast in the kitchen. I call Landon a “ratatouille.” He would write down what he wanted to prepare for lunch, and we were on our way with mustard smiley face bologna sandwiches and, of course, red grapes were a must. Fruit juice was Landon’s favorite drink.

Landon and I joined a wonderful Christian homeschool group. Landon was the only one with autism, but our group had one other special needs child. The group loved both of them. They saw Landon as a gift to them, and what a wonderful blessing that became in our lives. Uplifting someone’s self-esteem is a great gift that we can pass on to each other. In our group we would get together socially many times a week, and it was always enjoyable for Landon and for me. He was able to express his unique individuality without a heavy feeling in the air or without being pointed out or ostracized. That definitely made a difference in Landon’s overall attitude. He was able to express himself without any preconditions or labels, and that made him want to achieve even more.

We obviously don’t live in a perfect world, but when we are doing everything that we know to help improve our children’s lives, the feeling of satisfaction is a warm reward.

I also believe it’s very important to know what you are feeding your child. I’ve always said that it’s all about totally observing. I am a big fan of growing your food when your can. We know what we are feeding our animals, and our fruit trees have never been sprayed with any pesticides. OUR farm uses no chemicals. Who wants to be around those chemicals, let alone have them on our food?  I believe that all the chemicals we have in our lives might be a factor impacting our children’s immune systems. We as parents know when our child’s immune system is not up to par, so it’s only common sense to let the doctor know if there are any problems before any immunizations are given.

Landon and I operate our own hobby farm, complete with chickens, rabbits, doggies, and one elusive cat. Landon is doing wonderfully. He does all the chores on our hobby farm and shares his critters with anyone who loves animals. He has the total responsibility of providing their care.

We invite many individuals out to our farm. Every year we host an annual field trip for participants from our local county mental health centers. What smiles and joy Landon brings to my heart and to the hearts of our guests. He’s moving forward every day, most importantly with a loving and giving attitude in his life.

A quality life is what I have wanted for Landon since I heard the word autism. And every day we achieve that. Keep those smiles coming! What a difference it makes in life.

 

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