“Like typical parents, we had an excuse or a reason for why our son was doing what he was doing,” says Melissa Skillman. When 18-month-old Mason would sit in a corner and spin the wheels on a toy car for hours on end, she and husband Mark just laughed it off. “Oh, he’s working on a car, just like his dad; he’s trying to figure out how it works,” they’d say. After all, the couple owns the Fleet Auto Service Center in New Paltz. And when Mason didn’t respond to his name, they chalked it up to all the nicknames they had for him. “The excuses just went on and on,” says Melissa, “so as you can imagine, when we were given the news, we were really taken aback.”
The news was that Mason had autism spectrum disorder. In fact, he had moderate to severe cognitive delays in almost every area he was tested in on a multi-disciplinary evaluation. “We had started noticing some delays in his speech,” says Melissa. “He’d really regressed; what very few words he had learned he’d lost completely. But my husband and I are first-time parents and Mason is a one-and-only, so we really didn’t have any other children to compare him to.”
It was the couple’s nanny who really pushed them to have Mason evaluated for autism at 18 months. And that early diagnosis is the reason Mason is doing as well as he is today at age three-and-a-half, says Melissa.
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, its progression can be reversed with therapeutic care. “Mason is doing so well now,” Melissa says. “He’s a success story. When we first started early intervention, he had no words, he had no eye contact. He was in his own world. But today he goes to Brookside School in Cottekill, which is a special-needs preschool. And he’s speaking; in fact, he doesn’t stop talking! He’s more in our world. He still has a very long road ahead of him, but his therapists have done the most amazing work in getting him to where he is today. I think that a large part of that is because of the early diagnosis that Mason was able to receive. Their brains are so pliable when they’re so young, and they can be taught things that come inherently to neurotypical children.”
And because that early intervention is so important in the treatment of autism, she adds, it’s essential that parents and caregivers keep a lookout for the warning signs. People with autism spectrum disorder often have problems with social, emotional and communication skills, and have different ways of learning, paying attention or reacting to things. The signs begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life.
The kind of self-stimulatory, repetitive behavior with wheels that Mason displayed is typical of autistic behavior. So was the way he would line up objects. Early signs of autism in babies and toddlers includes their not making eye contact or looking at you when being fed and not responding to their name or the sound of a familiar voice. They might not smile when smiled at, follow objects visually, point or wave goodbye or use other gestures to communicate or follow a gesture when you point things out. They might not initiate or respond to cuddling or reach out to be picked up, or imitate your movements and facial expressions. They may resist change in their daily activities or have difficulty playing with others or sharing interest and enjoyment. And children with autism might lose skills they once had, in the way that Mason stopped using words at 18 months that he once had.
Autism can involve sensory processing issues. “Maybe they don’t like water, or they don’t like to be touched,” says Melissa. An autistic child might have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound. “Pay attention if they don’t react in what you think would be a normal way to pain or tickling; a lot of children on the spectrum do have sensory processing disorders where you can touch them very lightly but to them it may be painful, because the neurotransmitters are just not firing correctly.”
The thing is, the signs will vary. “This is one of those things where there is no guidebook,” says Melissa. “Nothing is set in stone. If you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism. That’s why it’s called a spectrum; it’s different for everyone. It’s not a hierarchical tiered type of diagnosis; it’s a spectrum. Some kids can be very good at some things and not so good at other things. When we first started this process, no one could tell us what Mason’s prognosis was other than that he really needed some aggressive therapy and quickly. But we see accomplishments and improvements in Mason every day, so that just keeps us looking ahead. We have the highest of hopes for Mason, and it’s really because of the dedicated professionals that work with him.”
In addition to recognizing the signs of autism, trust your instinct, she says. “If you have a concern, talk to your child’s pediatrician and be aggressive. The first couple of times we’d gone to the doctor, she’d said, ‘He’ll catch up, he’s a boy,’ and I knew deep down that something wasn’t quite right. Parental intuition is always best, so be aggressive, and if you think something may not be exactly right, go with your gut. That’s the best thing you can do for your children.”
Once Mason was diagnosed with autism, the Skillmans immersed themselves in the process of getting him therapeutic treatment. “We had to learn where to go, who the therapists are, the process of getting these services approved; trying to do whatever we could to help our son,” says Melissa. “The Hudson Valley Autism Society does a lot with providing support and grants for the different types of therapeutic equipment that families may need that are not covered by insurances. The occupational and social therapy that our son receives comes with a lot of tools and devices that you need to purchase. The Autism Society makes sure that every child has the resources they need to be the best that they can be.”
And because the Hudson Valley Autism Society has been so helpful in the process, the Skillmans want to give back. “One of the things that we’ve been able to really be proud of is helping other people who are just starting this journey themselves. We feel strongly about giving back to the Autism Society because they were so helpful to us, really giving us kind of a road map.”
So with April being Autism Awareness Month, the couple’s Fleet Service Center at 185 Main Street in New Paltz is serving as a collection spot for donations to the Hudson Valley Autism Society all month long. Blue is the color for autism awareness, so they’ve “lit the shop up blue.” (Switching out lights to blue during the month of April has become a global “Light It Up Blue” autism awareness movement with landmarks like the Empire State Building and Niagara Falls participating.) And the mechanics at Fleet are wearing custom uniforms all month with autism ribbons on the front and a special butterfly-with-puzzle-piece-wings logo on the back. “Last year we started a team for Mason called ‘Mason’s Monarch,’” says Melissa. (Both the monarch butterfly and the puzzle piece are often used as symbols for autism.)
Mason’s support team participated in last year’s Walk 4 Autism sponsored by the Hudson Valley Autism Society and will be at this year’s 14th annual Walk & Expo this Sunday, April 26 at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds. It’s one of the largest fundraisers of the year for the all-volunteer organization. Registration for the 1-2 mile walk around the track begins at 9 a.m. There will be live bands, food, autism-related resources, raffle prizes and fun family activities.
More information about the walk and other upcoming events is available at www.autismwalkhv.org. More information about early signs of autism and the developmental milestones that every child should reach by a certain age is available at the Hudson Valley Autism Society’s website, www.autism-society.org/chapter512/ and on the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.