PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN LEIKER
Finding the magic together: The Leikers visit Disney World in 2008. From left to right are Bradley, Bill holding Brody, Brian, Jean and Billy.
Bradley was our second child. Right around that 18- to 24-month-old period, we started noticing something about him. Looking back, I think my mother’s intuition told me that something was off.
After discussing my concerns with the pediatrician, I was told we could get a referral to the county’s early intervention program. I did decide to go ahead. If nothing else, I knew Bradley would qualify for speech therapy because he was saying nothing and I thought it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get the speech therapists in. We started with speech therapy twice a week.
We have met many wonderful people in the world of special education, and I have the utmost respect for special educators. The speech therapist recommended that we have an occupational therapy (OT) evaluation done, and Bradley did qualify for OT services. So we were having two speech therapy sessions a week and two OT sessions a week.
It was tough for me, because I’m not a confrontational person, and then I’m put in this position. Suddenly I needed to be an advocate. I wasn’t always comfortable doing that. But at the same time, who wouldn’t want to do everything possible to help their child?
So I kept asking for more services. Eventually, I had speech, OT and teacher services on a daily basis—through early intervention. We also did some private services with applied behavioral analysis (ABA), a certain methodology that’s used for children with autism.
My professional background is in law, but when it came to my personal life, I didn’t like having to be confrontational. I didn’t like having to fight for what we believed our son needed. Also, I’ve always considered myself a private person and all of a sudden we had a revolving door of therapists coming into our home. I became friendly with all of them, but that was a huge lifestyle change.
Having all the therapists visiting had an effect on my other children. My third child was just 6 weeks old when we started all of this. But my oldest son, Billy, who is 18 months older than Bradley, was 3½ when the providers started coming and they were all coming to smother Bradley with attention. They did their best, but when they were here, their focus was Bradley—as it should have been. Understandably, that was tough on our 3-year-old.
It is still a struggle for me, because I know Bradley gets so much attention. Even doing homework is a whole other thing. I carve out a huge chunk of time each week that is basically all Bradley. I can’t say that I do the same for the other three kids. Sometimes they will participate along with what Bradley and I are doing, but they are very aware that I’m working with Bradley.
For our oldest, understanding Bradley’s condition was a gradual process. We were well under way with services for nine months before we got an official diagnosis that Bradley was on the autism spectrum. We told Billy what we thought at the time would make the most sense in his world, depending on his age.
Now, Billy is 8 and understands that Bradley, 7, has autism, and that explains a lot of what we do. At the same time, I don’t like to use that as an explanation for everything. When a child gets that diagnosis, sometimes people are too quick to think that every behavior is because of autism—without taking into account that they have their own little personalities. Let’s face it, some days are better than others for all of us.
His brothers Brian, 5, and Brody, 2, are very supportive of Bradley—always cheering him on. We call Bradley our little family peacemaker because he is just like a ray of sunshine. And we are so grateful for that because my understanding is that a lot of children with autism might not be so affectionate, or might not be as much of a people person. But he is the sweetest—a little angel. Any special needs he may have are far outweighed by the joy he gives us on a daily basis.
One of the most valuable resources for us has been the support of other parents. Everybody is so willing to step up and share what they have been through. It is so overwhelming and all-consuming initially, although a diagnosis of autism is not the worst thing in the world by any means. Children make so much progress nowadays, and we strongly believe our son is going to be successful. We’re so proud of all of his accomplishments.
Diagnosis still is not a precise process. It’s “Does your child meet enough of the criteria?” There’s no medical test for autism. I’m a board member of the Central New York chapter of the Autism Society of America; the CNY ASA gets a lot of calls from families with recent diagnoses. Parents want to do everything they can for their child. Families often go through a period of grief. On a personal level, I would do everything I could during the day. Then at night, after my children were asleep, I would have my little cry for half an hour. And my husband, Bill, said to me one day, “I don’t think you should be crying. We are so blessed to have this child. No one ever said everything would be easy.” He was exactly right.
It is hard to decide on treatments because what works for one child might not be as effective for another. Speech therapy and OT and the teacher services are conventional treatments but there are many other alternative approaches. We are fortunate to be in the position where we could try some alternative approaches. But they are not usually covered by insurance. This alone limits many families.
Even with speech therapies, there are various approaches. We were introduced to the Prompt method just a couple of years ago. Bradley was 5 before he said his first word. Now he can communicate with us, what his needs and wants are. He gets speech therapy at his elementary school, but I also take him once or twice a week to a private therapist. He’s talking more and more, which is music to our ears. These are huge victories for him, and us!
Bradley and his dad have a very special connection. Bill is a very calming and comforting presence to Bradley. If there are things that I think may be more stressful for Bradley, I’ll ask Bill to accompany him. We each seem to have adopted different roles. With some things, I like it done my way. Meaning, I’m the one sitting with the therapist, I’m seeing what they’re doing and I know how to do it. So, I may not want Bill to try to do it. I think in any house, we all have our roles. I made this my role. Right now, this is what works for us.
Bradley attended preschool at the Franziska Racker Center in Cortland. It was a specialized program and I was so grateful to get him in there. The program was cozy and loving—just as you’d envision preschool to be. The teachers there seemed to really want to be there. I got a good feeling about it. He still loves school and I am very grateful for that. Elementary school has been a wonderful experience so far. The teachers foster a welcoming environment, from the top down. They teach the kids to be understanding of children’s differences. I think that’s tremendously beneficial to Bradley because he’s at an age now where he is modeling his typical peers, and I think an inclusive setting is beneficial to all children in the school. It’s a win-win. To contact the Central New York chapter of the Autism Society of America, call (315) 447-4466, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cnyasa.org.