DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Being the parent of an autistic child can be lonely.
“It’s hard having a child on the spectrum,” said Breanna Rodgers, referring to autism spectrum disorders, a group of severe developmental disabilities that can cause social, behavioral and communication difficulties. One of every 110 children in the U.S. has some form of autism, the Centers for Disease Control estimates.
“You kind of feel alone. This journey that you have to take has several different paths, and it helps if you have someone to walk it along with you, (someone who) has been there, to help guide you on what path to take,” she said.
Breanna and Jeremy Rodgers live in West Duluth with their three children: two daughters, ages 9 and 17 months, and a son, Dylan, 7, who was diagnosed as autistic when he turned 5.
Having an autistic child makes life more unpredictable. The Rodgers family can enjoy a fireworks display, or they can be forced to retreat to their house or cabin with all the windows closed and the lights on “because he can’t handle the extra stimulation,” Breanna Rodgers said. The family goes to a fair and all goes well in the morning, but after lunch “all of a sudden he’ll cling to my leg and have a meltdown, and we have to leave immediately.”
And sometimes those experiences can come with stares and rude comments from people who don’t understand what’s going on, she said.
So she approached Camp Miller, the camp operated by the Duluth Area YMCA along Sturgeon Lake, about hosting a camp for families of children with autism.
“I wanted it to be all about our autistic children and adults so they can see one another and have the time, and not worry about other people in the community when our children have the meltdowns,” she said.
Bridgit Maruska, Camp Miller director, said she was enthused about the camp, which is scheduled for June 17-19.
“I have felt a need to make this happen,” Maruska said. “I worked as a special ed (paraprofessional) before I came in here to Camp Miller, and I worked with kids with autism. They see life a little bit differently, but it’s wonderful.”
All eight of the directors who work under Maruska will be on hand for the family weekend, and some of them also are experienced at working with children with special needs. For instance, Amy McCarthy, the horseback director, formerly worked with children with disabilities at North Country RIDE in Esko.
The staff will get additional training from Susan Larson Kidd, a special education consultant who lives in Duluth whose book, “My child has autism, now what?” came out in November.
When Rodgers told her about the camp, Kidd volunteered her time. “This is going to be easy for me to do this for them because I’m passionate about it,” Kidd said. “I’ve been living and breathing it.”
Her main message: “Everyone with autism expresses it differently,” Kidd said. “It manifests itself differently. There’s so much variability in autism that what works with one kid may or may not work with another kid.”
Different things also work for different parents, Rodgers said, which may be one of the benefits of the camp. “It’s going to be, ‘Well, your child’s down there kicking and screaming. Do you want me to try?’ ” she said.
The camp experience also will help siblings, Rodgers said, because for a change they won’t feel like the only ones whose brother or sister behaves strangely.
Understanding why her son behaves the way he does is one of the hardest things for Rodgers.
“The autism is something that I don’t understand sometimes,” she said. “I wish that I could be him for a month, just to understand what he hears and what he sees differently than I do.”
But those differences can be inspiring, Kidd said. “I have learned all of my huge life lessons from kids on the spectrum.”
By JOHN LUNDY
Duluth News Tribune
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