News Article Details

Mom encourages questions about autism

News Courier - 5/6/2019

May 05-- May 5--Marlee Suggs is unique in a lot of ways.

She speaks in words and phrases best understood by those closest to her. She hugs backwards. She would watch sports every day if she could, and she loves seeing the sights around town, from the local library to the playground and duck pond.

And when she is at home, she likes to sit in a swing and sing.

What makes this 9-year-old even more unique is she might be the only little girl with autism in Limestone County. As of 2010, Alabama had one of the lowest rates of autism diagnoses in the nation, with only about 1 in 175 children diagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the same data set, boys were almost 4 times as likely to be diagnosed as girls.

Marlee's mom, Janica Suggs, said her daughter started early intervention when she was less than a year old because she was showing signs of developmental delay. But they were unaware she might be autistic until she was about 3. Marlee was almost 4 when she was diagnosed.

"I remember asking when the early intervention people were coming here," Janica Suggs said. "Of course, they can't diagnose, but she said she didn't think so. Once (Marlee) turned 3 and started going to preschool, then someone mentioned something that made us question that."

Marlee completed three years in the inclusion preschool program at Athens Elementary School. Once she was deemed ready for kindergarten, her mom began homeschooling her.

Janica said their weeks are pretty packed these days, with studies, therapy, her brothers' sports games or practices and -- when they can -- Storytime at the Athens-Limestone Public Library.

"I feel terrible if I forget it, because she loves it," Janica said. "They sing songs. She will sit there so quiet the whole time. She doesn't have a fidget; she just sits and listens and tries to follow the hand motions."

Marlee is still delayed in her motor skills, so following along can be difficult. Still, she gets excited about going. And while she may be quiet at the library, her mom said Marlee loves to sing elsewhere.

"She sings almost nonstop," Janica said. "Mostly hymns and spiritual songs. She loves the national anthem."

However, sounds can pose their own problem, even the ones she makes. Janica said sometimes she'll cover her own ears when she sings, and there's been more than one meltdown at the sounds of a grocery store check-out line.

"When we go to basketball games, she will watch the clock so she knows when the buzzer is about to go off," Janica said, adding Marlee often wears headphones to avoid the problematic noises. "Within a few seconds of the buzzer going off, even with headphones on, she will cover her ears and lean over to hide from it."

Using ABA

As much as Marlee loves sports, her mom said it's swim lessons that hold an even higher spot in Marlee's life. The lessons were recommended by her therapists, and Janica said Marlee will ask each morning if she can go.

Her teacher incorporates applied behavioral analysis techniques into the lessons to help Marlee overcome issues autism might present. It's a tactic the family uses in other areas, too.

"We've been doing ABA for several years," Janica said. "... Most of the time, (therapists) worked with me, teaching me how to do therapy with her."

For the most part, it's teaching Marlee how to be independent. Janica explained they take a task like brushing teeth and break it down into multiple smaller steps.

"We have pictures and words above our sink for every step of brushing your teeth," Janica said. "So she can look at those, and we can talk about those and try to teach her how to do that herself."

They also meet with an occupational therapist, a reading tutor and a speech therapist. Marlee is verbal and understands a lot of what she hears, but her speech is mostly limited to repeating what she hears on TV or in a movie.

"People can understand some of what she says, but a lot of it we understand more than others," Janica said. "... It's interesting, because she'll use a lot of those phrases in the correct way at the correct time, so she knows what it means, but she can't tell us if she has a stomach ache or something like that."

Growing understanding

Janica said she wishes people who don't understand would just ask about Marlee. Even though she's unique in a lot of ways, Marlee is like everyone else in a lot of ways, too.

"(People with autism) are people just like we are," Janica said. "They feel just like we feel. Even though they look like they're staring off into their own world, they hear and feel and they just want to be loved like we do."

She said the stares and looks her family receives are one of the hardest parts of having a child with autism.

"When they're little, especially," she said. "The dirty looks because people think your child is unruly and you're just not punishing them. Even now, people will look like they're growing horns or something."

However, she said, there are some really great moments in public, too. Janica said she and her husband were approached by a little boy recently who did exactly what she encourages everyone to do: he asked questions.

"That just made our day," she said. "He was interested in her and her life, and we never mind answering questions. I love for people to ask me questions, but the stares I could live without."

She said the boy was one of the first people near Marlee's age who took the time to ask about her.


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