In addition to being Celebrate Diversity Month, April is also Autism Acceptance Month. We sat down with Chris Gross, Manager of Information Technology in our Philadelphia office, to learn more about his experience being the parent of an autistic child. His oldest son, Christian, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in pre-k, right before his fifth birthday. Now in 10th grade and sixteen years old, they are starting to make preparations for college.
Do you have any advice for parents whose child has just been diagnosed with Autism? Are there any programs that helped Christian grow and develop?
When you first hear that diagnosis, it can be earth-shattering to a parent. Your mind goes a million miles an hour in every direction. Take a deep breath - everything will be ok. There are so many resources available to help parents - from organizations that focus on providing information to those that raise awareness or focus on assistance. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of them all. Some states provide benefits through health insurance (each state is different). There are advocates for you and your child and plenty of education material – read and learn as much as you can! Your world is going to change, but not adversely. Your mind will be opened to different ways of thinking and understanding how their BEAUTIFUL minds work. Lastly, don’t be afraid of asking for help. There are tons of parents that have been through this, and, in my experience, will be right there to support you as well.
Do you have any favorite activities or hobbies with Christian?
At a very young age, Christian gravitated towards LEGOs. He loved building things (and taking them apart) as well as designing things in his head and then creating them using the pieces. Even though he’s now 16, he still loves them and enjoys building them with me. It’s this time together that I truly treasure. Spending time with him and watching his mind work is truly amazing. I always try to have a big LEGO set for us to complete. He’s also a HUGE Star Wars fan, so we always watch the movies and TV shows together and talk about all the related stories, rumors, and possibilities.
You mentioned you’re beginning preparations for college. Does Christian have any passions he’ll pursue?
Over the last two years, Christian has developed his ability to draw and animate on his computer. I can totally see him going to school for art; he has some real talent!
Are there any programs that helped Christian grow and develop?
There are a number of programs that have helped us through the years. Autism Speaks is a great organization with a lot of resources, but there are also behavior therapists that have helped Christian. These professionals taught him how to handle different situations and understand how he feels. They also helped me and his brother with understanding Christian better and how we could help him. We’ve also enrolled him in various social skills groups to help him learn how to socialize better and connect with others. These groups span a variety of activities, from building LEGOs as a group, playing Minecraft, learning music, and even working with horses.
Have you faced any challenges related to learning virtually during the pandemic? Do you have any advice for other parents navigating this landscape?
Remote learning in this pandemic has certainly presented some challenges. In the classroom environment, there are accommodations and extra resources to keep children on the spectrum on track and focused. During remote learning, those accommodations are no longer right there, so Christian is very easily distracted and requires a lot of reinforcement from me to ensure that he’s completed his school assignments. One of the tools I’ve implemented at home is parental control software on his computer, so I can control what apps he can access during school hours, which helps minimize distractions.
What’s your favorite part about being Christian’s dad?
It’s been a privilege to be Christian’s father. Watching him grow into an amazing young man has been incredible. I would say my favorite part would be watching his mind process with his imagination and creativity. How he sees the world is so enlightening. He’s made me a better person and a better father by helping me see things the way he does.
What would you hope someone reading this blog could learn about Autism?
First, that there’s no “typical” behavior for individuals on the spectrum. There’s a quote from Dr. Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” I think it highlights how different each person on the spectrum can be, including Dr. Shore himself.
Second, I hope that everyone tries to educate themselves to understand what being on the spectrum means. Parents of children on the spectrum often have fear, particularly when their children are in sensory overload and having a meltdown, that they are going to be judged by others. For those unaware of autism, the meltdowns can easily be misinterpreted as a child having a temper tantrum or being a brat. You can make a world of difference by offering your support to the parent because, in those times, they are trying their best just to keep it together.