With patience and education, Deb and Peter Wims learn to accept their son Matthew’s autism
Around 7 p.m. every evening, Deb Wims offers goodbye kisses to her husband Peter Wims and their little boys, Matthew, 6, and 2 1/2-year-old Mickey, before she heads out the door.
On those evenings, she changes into costumes and stage makeup to perform at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre.
She’s lucky, Deb says. She truly gets to do what has made her heart beat since her high school show choir days.
Most evenings, when she’s waiting for her cue to go on stage, Deb receives a text from her husband which reads simply, “Got them to sleep at 8:05 p.m. Ha.”
It’s a running joke between them, Deb says.
“Peter is a wizard with bedtime.”
But she isn’t. In fact, she’s sometimes lucky to get the boys bathed and in bed by 9:30 p.m.
In many ways, they are a typical family, lucky enough to work out their schedules so that Deb is at home during the day. Peter is with the kids in the evenings. And their little boys are rowdy and happy, content and energetic.
In their house, though, Deb and Peter sometimes require more patience, more focus, more listening. Their oldest son — a happy little brown-eyed guy with a winning smile and a sweet mop of red hair — has autism, a developmental disorder that causes significant challenges, ranging from mild to severe, in social interaction, communication and behavior.
Accepting this diagnosis, educating themselves about it, seeking out resources for Matthew and finally reaching a place where they could both embrace autism instead of fearing it is a story Deb and Peter are willing to share for the sake of their child and other parents who may see the possibility of this same journey in their own family.
When Matthew was 2 years old, he read words like “Saturn” and “Pluto.” He recited the alphabet without being taught. A year later, he was writing complicated words like “valentine” and “elephant.”
She and Peter beamed, Deb says. They were thrilled by Matthew’s intelligence.
What they did not know, however, was that these abilities were actually red flags. Just like the fact that Matthew sometimes struggled to communicate. And sometimes, he didn’t feel comfortable making eye contact.
The pediatrician assured them that Matthew was developing normally, but they still worried.
“It’s important to know that even though your child is meeting developmental milestones, it doesn’t mean that something else might not be going on,” Deb says.
At the time, Deb and Peter had no knowledge of First Steps, an in-home therapeutic program specifically offered for children birth to age 3, with developmental delays. Had they known about this program, they would definitely have reached out much sooner for testing and therapies, Peter says.
When they did seek an evaluation for Matthew, when he was nearly 3, they faced a huge learning curve about how to help their child.
But first came the emotional work.
“At first, I think I was in denial,” Deb says. “I thought, Well, he makes eye contact with me. And he’s very verbal. It’s really hard for someone who doesn’t know anything about autism to see it in their child.”
They both eventually grasped the reality, Peter says. But Deb got there before he did.
“I did not want to see it,” he says. “I did not want to believe it. And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all for kids with autism.”
The Autism Spectrum is vast, with three basic groupings to explain different levels of ability. But no two children with autism behave the same. Though autism is diagnosed in 1 in 110 children, with 1 in 70 of those children being boys, the cause is still a mystery.
The cause wasn’t where the Wims decided to put their energy anyway.
Deb and Peter concentrated only on their happy little guy and his individual needs. They found that Matthew requires physical activity, as in gross motor movement. He loves to swing. He takes swimming lessons. He plays in the ball pit in the basement.
“Jumping on the bed is acceptable behavior in our house,” Deb says with a laugh. “And he loves to jump from the couch to the bean bag chair.”
Of course, Matthew has company in all that physical activity too. Mickey is usually not far behind.
For Matthew, the world is easier to live in when there are few surprises. So the bedtime routine is always the same. The daily schedule is consistent. He finds it easier to find his words and share them with less frustration when he is well rested.
“He needs a little bit of warning for new situations,” Deb says. “That used to be a lot more frequent when he was younger. He really adapts well now. Matthew’s doing so, so very well.”
Matthew attends an integrated kindergarten program but also meets with a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and a resource teacher.
When he is at home, “he and Mickey are best buds,” Deb says of her sons. “They play so well together. They will always have each other.”
Finding the tools to work with the diagnosis instead of allowing it to damage the family was initially a struggle.
“We were at odds in the beginning,” Deb says. “We had so many disagreements. But then we saw that we had to be on the same team or this whole thing would fall apart. Once we decided that, we were able to move forward.”
They move forward differently every day. Some days are better than others.
She will never again pre-judge a mother with a screaming child at the grocery store, Deb says.
“Matthew has taught me to put myself in other parents’ shoes. You never know what’s going on in another person’s family.”
He still has days when accepting autism is painful, Peter says.
“That continues,” he says of the grieving. “It comes and goes. It doesn’t go away. It happens more when I see him struggling to articulate.”
As often as possible, they adjust to better meet Matthew’s needs.
But when they look at their first child, they don’t see autism. They see his willingness to share his toys with other children. They admire his dimples and “the way his smile just lights up a room,” Peter says.
“It’s a little extra work for Matthew to live in our world,” Deb says. “And he’s doing a great job at that.”
April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month by the Autism Society, an organization is seeking to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides these definitions related to autism:
Autism Spectrum Disorder Types
There are three different types of ASDs:
Also called “classic” autism, autistic disorder is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism.” People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.
People with Asperger syndrome usually have some milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified
People who meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all, may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS, also called “atypical autism.” People with PDD-NOS usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder. The symptoms might cause only social and communication challenges.
A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder might:
- Not respond to their name by 12 months
- Not point at objects or show interest in toys
- Avoid contact and want to be alone
- Have delayed speech and language skills
- Flap their hands, rock their body or spin in circles
- Have obsessive interests
- Get upset by minor schedule changes
- Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
Need an Evaluation?
- Speak to your pediatrician
- Contact Central Indiana First Steps for an evaluation at (317) 257-2229
- Evaluation forms and more information are available at infirststeps.com.