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'He's made us much better parents'

Creston News Advertiser - 4/29/2019

April 29-- Apr. 29--April is Autism Acceptance month. For the Ralstons, acceptance of having a child diagnosed with autism was easy, but the journey has not been.

Dr. Bill and Kathy Ralston adopted their son Isaac, who is now a junior, when he was 6 days old. Isaac's first year was fairly normal, and then at 15 months, he started to regress. By 20 months, Isaac started exhibiting behaviors -- often called stims -- Ralston now knows were signs of autism.

At age 3, Ralston said she believed Isaac had autism, however, it would take 5 more years before he was officially diagnosed with a level 2 diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum.

Autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. The Autism Society describes it as a developmental disability in which signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.

Although individuals with autism might display certain "typical" autistic behaviors such as difficulty making eye contact, sensory sensitivities and pain-seeking self-stimulating behaviors (stims), it is a "spectrum condition" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

Autism may affect an individual's cognitive abilities, although many with autism have typical or even higher than average IQs.

Ralston said parents should not be afraid of an autism diagnosis.

"Diagnosis allows you to start on a course that will be helpful, that will [provide] your loved one with the tools they will need," She said.


The Green Hills Area Education Agency (AEA) helps provide some of those tools for Isaac and other students with autism. Ralston said early access to therapies is important for children with autism. The Green Hills Early Access Team helps families learn strategies to support their children in preacademic areas such as communication, behavior and social skills.

Once a child with autism reaches school age, the AEA has a team to support the student, family and school staff.

In school, students with autism and other disabilities can be supported through paraprofessionals -- aides who might shadow an individual student or work with several students in a classroom.

The AEA can hold in-service training for paraprofessionals and teachers

Isaac has benefited from paraprofessionals in some of his classes. In other classes, he is able to function independently or with help from some trusted friends. Isaac said when he has trouble with his work in class he can ask his teacher or his friends for help.

Ralston served as the executive director at The Learning Center of Southwest Iowa in Creston, which provides programming for students who learn differently, in order to create some of the resources she wishes were available to Isaac when he was younger.

Tutoring services focusing on specific deficiencies are available to students with learning differences two to three days a week.The Learning Center also provides family support through groups, networking and advocacy.

Isaac also receives support services through Iowa Focus. This allows him to spend time away from his family safely, while he is also learning skills to help him be successful in the community.

Ralston said she appreciates that Isaac gets his own time and she and her husband can focus on their other children, work and marriage.

Southwestern Community College has disability services that help students with special needs, including those with autism, to craft an learning environment where they can be successful.

According to Deb Pantini, director of student development, students can request accommodations such as a distraction free environment for testing, reduced course loads and text-to-speech software so they can listen to their text books. Pantini said that not all accommodations fit all students.

"We really try to make in individualized for what that student might need for their classes," Pantini said.

Student support services also can provide specialized advising, tutoring and transfer services to students to help them in their career at SWCC and in moving on to other institutions.

School and friends

Ralston said they chose Creston because they were looking for a small community that had the resources Isaac would need. They visited the school and the teachers several times to make sure it would be a good fit for Isaac.

She attributes much of Isaac's success to his fifth-grade teachers Corina Hoepker and Sara Stevens and the friends he made that year.

She called it, "marvelous inclusion."

"They nurtured acceptance of all ability levels," Ralston said. "Those kids, I can still see, have remained that way, those 20 or so kids."

Their inclusive classroom mixed special needs students with higher performing students. All of the students had access to extra help when needed and were encouraged to help each other.

Before moving to Creston, Isaac experienced problems with bullying. Ralston believes that the inclusive classroom played a role in limiting the bullying in Creston -- especially since it helped develop and a foster friendship between Isaac, Abbi Hood and Ashton Wills, who are still friends as juniors.

Last week, Hood and Wills shared some of Isaac's thoughts on being autistic during the Creston Community High School panther rally where they asked students to wear blue to support autism acceptance.

"Autism makes me really sensitive to sounds, lights, smells and just lots of commotion," Isaac said. "This makes school hard because I always hear so much more and louder than everyone else. Some days I can handle it, and other days, it just makes me really tired and gives me a headache."

Isaac also explained that he is just like other people his age.

"I love to go to the movies and play video games," Isaac said. "I also like to ride bikes and go to the pool. Mostly I just like to hang out."

Hood asked Isaac for his advice on reaching out to students with autism.

"Well, Abbie, just do what you do," Isaac said. "Be friends. Be kind. Don't be afraid. That's all. We're all different, but we can all be friends."

Isaac knows that autism makes some of the things he does in school and in life more difficult. He enjoys basketball games but has difficulty attending them because of the noise level.

He has learned skills to help him both in school and out. He finds it hard to understand why someone would yell at a teacher. He said he has had to learn to be flexible when other students don't follow the rules.

The same and different

Isaac said he would be the same person whether he had autism or not. He would still have his friends, and they would do things together.

Ralston said she would be very different if it weren't for Isaac's autism.

"My kindness has grown, my compassion, my flexibility, my priorities would be different," Ralston said. "Isaac has been the biggest gift to us. He's made us much better parents and much better people."


(c)2019 the Creston News Advertiser (Creston, Iowa)

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