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Somerset woman plans to raise autism awarness

Photos by Gretta Stark The Whitlock family sits in their living room. Pictured (from left) are Jacob (2) and Bryce, with one of the family's guinea pigs, Kaleb (7) holds a "Power Rangers" toy, Beckah and Joshua (6) hold the other of the family's two guinea pigs. Beckah Whitlock said the guinea pigs are a part of her autistic sons' therapy.1 / 2
Beckah Whitlock demonstrates the use of her automatic soap dispenser and indicates a picture schedule located above the soap dispenser. The picture schedule outlines the steps of washing up: turn on faucet, get soap, wet washcloth, turn off faucet and dry hands. This is one of many picture schedules that Beckah Whitlock put up around the house to help her sons get through their daily routines.2 / 2

At one point, Beckah Whitlock said she didn't think she'd get to hear her son Kaleb speak, let alone say "I love you, Mom." Kaleb received a standard immunization when he was 1 year old. The immunization triggered a predisposition Kaleb had towards autism, Beckah said, and a week later, Beckah Whitlock said Kaleb started showing signs of the disorder.

"He stopped walking, he stopped talking, he stopped looking at us, he did not want to be held," Beckah said. "He would scream and cry for eight hours a day or longer."

According to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), which sets forth the standard classification of medal disorders used by mental health professionals, autism is a condition involving problems with social interaction and language. This often involves trouble reading facial expressions, making eye contact and communicating with others.

In what Beckah called her darkest hour, she recalls a night when Kaleb was 2 or 3 years old. He was sitting in a corner of the living room, crying and vomiting at 3 a.m.

"He was in his diaper just throwing up and he wouldn't let us touch him," Beckah said. "He wouldn't let us comfort him. If we tried to touch him, he would throw himself on the floor and hit his head and then he'd make himself throw up again. It was like 'How am I supposed to help this child and comfort this child, when it's more painful for me to touch him than it is for me to just leave him alone?'"

At that point, Beckah said, Kaleb was at his lowest-ever level of functioning.

What got Beckah through her darkest hour, she said, is her faith in God. Beckah, a Mormon, said her religion's Plan of Salvation Doctrine is what helped her survive.

"In times of uncertainty and times that I don't understand and times that I have no explanations that the Lord has a plan somehow," Beckah said," and somehow, it will all be made right through Christ."

Beckah and her husband Bryce lived in Idaho at that point. When Bryce received a demotion at work, due to a lack of funds, Beckah said she and her husband decided to move, find a new job and find a school with a good program for Kaleb and his younger brothers, who also have autism, as they got older. Beckah said she searched all over for a community with a good special education program for children with autism.

"I believe God guided us to Somerset," Beckah said. "We found the perfect house and the school has been amazing."

The Somerset School District's special education team met with Beckah to make an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Kaleb. The IEP is a plan to help Kaleb get the help he needs to succeed in school. It is a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the federal legislation governing special education.

"I will never forget sitting down in my first IEP meeting in Somerset," Beckah said. "The first thing they said about my son was 'Let's talk about the child's strengths.'"

Beckah said this was in contrast to Kaleb's previous school in Idaho, where she said, the special education team had focused on Kaleb's problems more than his strengths.

Since starting at Somerset, Kaleb, now 7 years old, has improved by leaps and bounds, going from a nonverbal child to being able to function, with help, in a regular classroom, Beckah said.

"If you're going to judge a school program by how well the child's prognosis becomes, I guess you could say Somerset is successful," she said.

Beckah said Kaleb's autism is no longer very severe. He speaks easily and doesn't mind being touched anymore. He can be in a regular second grade classroom, with some adjustments. If he is overwhelmed by taking a test or having other children around him, for example, Kaleb is given more time to take the test.

Whitlock's second son, Joshua (6), has always tested well in intelligence and communication skills, Beckah Whitlock said, but she said Joshua is now having extreme behavior issues. She said he can snap and start throwing desks around with no trigger. Joshua's doctor is working to help adjust Joshua's medication to help keep his behavior managed, Beckah said.

Beckah said the school district is working to keep Joshua and the other children safe.

As Joshua's intelligence level is high, the school is looking into finding a way to get him into the Gifted and Talented program, despite his special needs.

"They're willing to work with him individually to get him the best success he can. I'm just so impressed with that." Beckah said. "Somerset is like a dream come true for us."

However improved her sons are, Beckah said being the parent of an autistic child is always challenging.

She said she uses things like picture schedules to help her sons get through their days. Autistic people like routines, she said, and have a difficult time without structure.

Beckah posted what she calls picture schedules throughout the house giving her sons routines for normal parts of daily living.

One of those picture schedules hangs in the kitchen and gives the boys steps to take when trying a new food. First, they smell it, then lick it, taste it, have a small bite, a medium bite and finally a large bite. Beckah said it can take quite a while to work up to the larger bites.

"Foods have textures and smells and tastes and that's a lot for their brain to process just in one bite," Beckah said. The steps on the picture schedule help the boys slowly adjust to all the sensations of trying a new food.

To other parents whose children have disabilities, Beckah says "have expectations of your kids." She said it is important to have goals for children, no matter how limiting their disabilities may be.

"We all have challenges, theirs are definitely more intense and definitely felt much deeper and have much greater consequences on their life and to their quality of life," Beckah said, "but have expectations."

Even the smallest expectations are important not only for children but for parents as well, Beckah said. She said having hopes that her kids would get even a little better helped her through some of the most difficult times.

If she had learned nothing else from her experiences so far with her autistic sons, Beckah said she has learned to have faith in herself.

"I know that if there was no other purpose, that I learned patience and kindness and compassion," Beckah said, "and I learned how to support other people that are going through the same thing."

Beckah and two other parents of autistic children will start meeting monthly in November to plan an Autism Awareness Week event this coming April.

She said these events, as yet unplanned, will be her way of giving back to the school district's autism program after it has helped her family so much.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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