NETTLETON, MS — Autism. It’s not like cooties. You can’t catch it from standing too close to someone who has it. There isn’t a medical test to diagnose Autism.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and the town of Nettleton, MS is hosting its first ever Autism 5K Run/Walk and Marketplace on Saturday, April 28th to raise money for The Autism Center in Tupelo, MS. They offer free and low-cost services to all children on the Autism Spectrum and any others that may just be developmentally delayed in some way. No child is turned away.
Autism affects 1 in 88 children. It’s a developmental disorder that usually appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. There are 3 categories in which Autism is diagnosed, but the amount of symptoms presented are different for each, as well as the severity. There is Classic Autism, Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s Syndrome. Some signs of Autism can include not making eye contact, not smiling or exhibiting joyful expressions by 6 months or later, not imitating sounds and movements others make, not communicating through gestures by 10 months, not responding to his or her name from 6 to 12 months, not babbling by 12 months, not pointing, reaching, or waving by 12 months, not speaking by 16 months, and not using two-word phrases by 24 months.
In the case of 8 year old Dawson Dabbs of Nettleton, he was considered completely normal from the age of birth to 2 1/2 year old. It wasn’t until his mother Brandi Dabbs enrolled him in the three-year class at preschool that she started noticing a difference in his developmental abilities. “There was always something different about Dawson. I just couldn’t get other people to see what I was seeing because they were around him as much as I was,” Dabbs explained. “The pediatrician just told me told me that Dawson was smart and quirky,” Dabbs said.
By the time he was 3, Dawson had stopped answering to his name and started his incessant pacing. The tantrums (meltdowns) started next made worse by her and her husband’s attempts to find the cause. The connection between noise (which always bothered him) and meltdowns, wasn’t discovered until Dawson turned 4. “The world drove him crazy and for an entire year and a half, we barely took him out in public.” Some days it would be so bad that Dawson would take to him room for hours and write letters and numbers in repeating patterns. “I slowly watched the boy I knew, so happy and so full of life, retreat into his mind and body. The worst part Dabbs asked? ” I didn’t have a clue about what was happening, let alone the signs we were seeing were Autism.”
It would take another 3 years and countless appointments with pediatricians, clinical psychiatrists, and child psychologists before Dawson was finally diagnosed with a high functioning form of Autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. During that journey, doctors also diagnosed Dawson with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.) “Asperger’s by itself is a huge thing to deal with and all of its developmental and social problems. So to add 2 other disorders that require medicines is a very jagged and rocky mountain to climb!” says Dabbs.
However, with the help of Occupational, Speech, Cognitive Behavior and Applied Behavior Therapy, therapists worked with him to find out where his strengths were and, most importantly, where his weaknesses were in areas such as social, educational, sensory, nutritional, cognitive, and more.
Armed with that knowledge, Dabbs knew attending school would be the next challenge. The school day presents its own set of hurdles for any child, let alone one with Asperger’s Syndrome. Social interations, noisy and disordered environments, constant and sometimes intense sensory stimulation coupled with changes in expected routines? It’s pure torture for a child like Dawson.
The good news is that Dawson’s diagnoses would make him eligible for interventions, resources, and accommodations to help him function at school. He was placed in a special education, inclusion class. “A lot of people view the words special education as something for unintelligent people. That is not the case,” explained Dabbs. “Even with the accommodations, Individualized Education Program (IEP) and special education services Dawson was getting, he would still graduate with a normal diploma.” Accommodations are the modifications in how a child learns while in class. The curriculum (core components the child learns) isn’t changed, it’s just how it is taught and presented that is changed.
Dawson’s IEP allowed accommodations like the use of a mechanical pencil. Dawson used to obsess over sharpening his regular pencil over and over and over. He now has a pencil that will always be sharp. The school has also made a small area for him to “skip/pace” as needed through the day. “The pacing for example is a way he calms himself from being either stressed or anxious. It’s also something he does when he gets excited and is dealing with the feeling of being excited,” said Dabbs. The best accommodation of all? Dawson was approved for a full time personal 1 to 1 assistant to be with him while he was in class.
Still, the biggest problem Dabbs has noticed is the lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding Autism and its spectrum. It’s her mission to create an arsenal of information about doctors, links for help with schools, IEP’s, etc. at her website www.deeplydistracted.com for other parents to know they’re not alone. Part of this mission is to help out a The Autism Center in Tupelo, MS with an Autism 5K Run/Walk and Marketplace on Saturday, April 28th. The run/walk will start at 9 am and the Marketplace will be open until 5 pm. There will be entertainment all day long at the end of Young Avenue. There will also be games, shopping, food, and a silent auction, and a few other cool things. So even if you can’t walk or run in the race, Dabbs encourages everyone to come out to downtown Nettleton and at least see what it’s all about.
Dabbs knows that Dawson never be well because Autism isn’t curabale. Her only desire is to see Dawson thrive happily. “He’s so unique that there will never be another like him. I wish I could spend a day inside Dawson’s brain and see what he thinks about. I’m sure it would be amazing.” Dawson likes to refer to himself as normal. Dabbs said, “Keep on keepin’ the dream alive” to which Dawson responded, “I am not dreaming about it, it’s a fact.”
For more information, feel free to contact Brandi Dabbs via Facebook.
Monroe Journal Newspaper Article
Written by Colleen Conger | Photo by Colleen Conger
Shortened version originally published in print and online May 16, 2012