Statistics posted from 2018 by the Autism Society report that an average of 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder each year.
Autism can affect just the mind or the whole body, and the disorder can impact an autistic person at different levels. Some are able to carry out completely normal lives, live independently, and even support themselves financially. Others can be nonverbal or need extra assistance when it comes to everyday tasks.
Regardless of where an autistic person is on the spectrum, others tend to develop preconceived ideas about what people affected by autism need or how they behave. Knowing more about the reality of autism can help the many families in the Yakima Valley who have to deal with the disorder.
Hope and Christian McDonald are the parents of Lauren McDonald, a 12-year-old student who was in the sixth grade last year at Yakima’s Wilson Middle School. Julian Rivera, 13, is also a student at Wilson, and is the son of Trinidad and Vladimir Rivera. Despite going to the same school and having parents who work as educators, these children face different circumstances. The effect that their autism has had on their family is very similar, though.
Before Lauren McDonald had turned 2, her parents knew she was different. They were unable to get an official diagnosis until she reached age 3. Lauren has auditory processing problems, which means her brain does not process social or verbal cues.
Her dad described the situation this way: “It’d be like you were dropped off in China, everyone was mingling, and you were off in your own little corner by yourself.”
Because of Lauren’s disorder, she can display aggressive behavior because of her lack of understanding what is going on around her.
“Things that come very naturally to us are a battle for her,” said Lauren’s dad.
As Lauren has gotten older, her parents have learned more about the type of autism their daughter has, and how to help her lead a full life.
“Life has become more routine because of her,” notes Hope. “We really do everyday life, abbreviated.”
Sometimes, parents are completely unaware that their child has ASD because no one expects their own son or daughter to have autism. In the Rivera family, Julian was diagnosed at age 3. That diagnosis came much to his mother’s relief.
“It gave us peace that we weren’t doing anything wrong,” she said. “It helped us focus and put a name on it.”
Although today Julian is fairly social, his mom recalls: “In the beginning it was horrific. We started his speech therapy, and he was just under the table.”
While Julian is still not considered “verbal,” his mom says he is able to successfully communicate what he feels and what he needs.
As she puts it: “I think the biggest surprise and delight (is) our active lifestyle. He has a lot of self-help skills that not a lot of other children have.”
Both families are fortunate to have children who love traveling and going on vacations. Lauren’s favorite place in the world is Disneyland. Whether in the airport or in lines at the park, her parents say things are pretty smooth for the most part.
“She’s learned patience,” said Lauren’s dad, adding that this is sometimes one of the hardest concepts for a child with autism to grasp.
Trinidad Rivera immediately lights up when discussing family vacations.
“He thrives with travel, adventure and doing new things ... things that move, (and that are) transportation related,” she said. “The autism diagnosis doesn’t mean your life is over. He’s learned how to swim, take a shower by himself, how to write and read at a fourth-grade level. My next ‘mom-goal’ is to teach him how to cook.”
While Trinidad admits that she initially was frustrated and even crushed by her son’s diagnosis, she has realized the blessings.
“I’m spoiled by his love and tenderness,” she said. “I’m blessed to have a son who’s on the spectrum because I get to see another side of human development that other parents don’t get to see.”
Today, Hope and Christian McDonald are very proud of their daughter and all that she’s learned.
“Honestly,” Christian says, “I didn’t know she could ever say a word that made sense.”
His wife adds: “She has a lot of words in that head that we don’t know about yet.”
As time has gone on, Lauren’s family has really learned how to live life to the fullest, even with autism in the picture.
“Quite a few people comment that I handle it quite well, when I feel like I don’t,” Hope admits. “We have to gauge everything by ‘Is this worth our time, money and effort?’ You cannot take everyday things for granted. It changes the choices you make every day about what you do.”
Looking toward the future, both families have big plans. Rather than saying no to new opportunities, the McDonalds and Riveras embrace the challenge in order to help their children lead fulfilled, joyous lives.