Stafford family learns to adjust to life with autism
BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
If Breanna Jones tells friends that her two brothers have autism, one question inevitably comes up: “What’s life like in your house?”
The 12-year-old usually replies, “Basically, the same as your house. Maybe a little louder.”
But Breanna’s experiences as a sibling differ from her friends’ experiences. So the Stafford County preteen created a handbook on how to be the sibling of someone with autism.
The book includes tips on how to understand what it’s like to have autism.
And the boys’ mother, Adria, wears a bracelet with shiny charms in the shape of puzzle pieces, the symbol for autism awareness.
“Autism isn’t something people speak about a lot,” she said. “But it’s widespread, and the numbers are growing.”
But the Jones family wasn’t always so aware of autism. In 2004, when David was diagnosed with the disorder, his parents knew of autism only from the movie “Rain Man.”
David was then in second grade and had trouble focusing and was easily irritated.
But he was a far cry from the obsessive, card-counting main character in the movie.
David’s parents soon learned that autism is a spectrum and affects each child differently. That message hit home when their younger son was diagnosed soon after, as a preschooler.
At the time, autism was just showing up on the public radar.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control put the rate at 1 in 88 American children. Some dispute the rise in autism, and say that doctors are now over-diagnosing the disorder.
Changes are on the way for the official diagnosis, and many speculate that children on the milder end of the spectrum will no longer be diagnosed with autism.
Both David and Brendon fall on the mild side of the autism spectrum, but Adria doesn’t doubt the diagnosis or that it’s helped her sons.
Now, the family’s Stafford homes seems an oasis from stress—a relatively peaceful abode that is usually spotless. The four Jones children—including 7-year-old Ashley—are polite and well-mannered.
“Autism is something you adjust to,” Adria said. “And we just learned to adjust to it.”
But it was hard at first, she said.
David couldn’t complete his homework without constant supervision. Although he was bright, he struggled to focus in school.
Brendon’s autism is more severe than David’s, and his needs dominated the household for a while. He hated whenever any of his siblings laughed too loud or made too much noise. He screamed at Breanna if she turned on music and danced.
The family couldn’t go out to eat because Brendon would throw a fit if the food wasn’t ready right away.
Breanna often lashed out at her brothers and their neediness. Her parents told her that her brothers had Asperger’s and asked her to be understanding.
“I thought it was just some big word,” she said. “It didn’t mean anything to me.”
Then her father gave her a book called “Freaks, Geeks and Asperger.” And she started to understand her brothers.
At the same time, the diagnoses helped the family get special education services at school and support at home. David and Brendon started improving.
And their move to Stafford three years ago helped tremendously, said their father, Ron.
As a Marine family, they had to relocate five times in five years before landing in Stafford. The stability of staying in one place helped, Ron said. And so did the staff at the boys’ Stafford public schools.
Brendon will go to middle school next year, but for the past three years, he’s attended Rocky Run. Adria works at the school as a paraprofessional, and both parents said that the school couldn’t have been more supportive.
Brendon said that his teacher, Anna Snoddy, helps him when other kids make fun of him because he’s different.
David settled right into Colonial Forge, where he plays on the football team and is a member of JROTC. He eventually hopes to join the Marine Corps, like his father.
Both football and JROTC have helped David develop confidence and self esteem, Ron said.
David didn’t talk much about his autism at first, but now he tells his teammates and friends.
They usually respond by saying, “But you seem so normal.”
And looking at David, it would be hard to see the signs of autism. But they are there.
In driver’s education, for example, David once ran a stop sign because the instructor told him “Go through that stop sign and turn right.” People with autism are often very literal, and David thought he was just following directions.
Sometimes, David can’t concentrate in school. And when he has trouble, he turns to his special education adviser, Michelle Brewer.
“She’s a person I can always count on,” he said.
Overall, Ron and Adria are thrilled with their sons’ progress.
Ron, who is now stationed in Japan, said that when the boys were first diagnosed, he and Adria worried constantly about their future.
Now they don’t worry so much.
And Adria said that while the diagnoses helped the boys receive support, the family is dedicated to making sure that autism won’t cloud their future.
“No matter what label is put on you, don’t use that as an excuse to not fulfill your dreams,” she tells her sons.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973