A whole spectrum – Two moms talk about raising sons with autism

January 2022 Posted in Uncategorized

By Melissa Wagoner

When Natashia Kletter and Kriston Norris became mothers to their sons, Kenny and Noah, they knew their lives were about to change. What they didn’t know was how much.

Noah and Kriston Norris

“Even as a baby, there were things I could see,” Norris said. Recalling the many unique attributes her son, Noah, exhibited not long after birth. “But it was just him.”

Then, when Noah was three, a family member who is also a doctor, approached Norris about having Noah tested for autism. The results were something Norris says she had known on some level all along – Noah has autism.

“I see parents who really resist any type of label,” Norris said. Acknowledging that, in many ways, she was one of those people. 

But, while receiving a diagnosis can be frightening, it can also be incredibly helpful.

“There are so many resources and we were so lucky about the programs we got into,” Norris said. Without knowing what Noah needed, help would have been much harder to find. 

“If you don’t have someone telling you these things, then how do you know?” she asked.

Kletter has similar views. Having struggled for three years to find the root cause of her son, Kenny’s, numerous medical issues and noticeable learning delays – caused by a rare genetic form of autism – she is now an advocate for insurance-provided genetic testing as a way for children with special needs to receive the earliest interventions possible.

“In order for him to become as independent as he can be he needs resources now,” Kletter explained. “Because as long as his needs are met, he will thrive.”

And Kenny is thriving. Despite having been told that he would never walk or talk, Kenny, now eight years old, is doing both. But it hasn’t been easy.

“There’s no rest,” Kletter said. She began homeschooling both Kenny and his younger sister, Lilah, after discovering public school was not a good fit for her son. 

“There’s no break. But at the same time, what’s more rewarding than honoring your children with a rich education?” 

It’s a topic about which Kletter has become passionate. A former engineer, she has taken a distinctly scientific approach to parenting, observing her son’s interests, then using them to develop his skills. It’s a method she describes as the, “What do you love? And how can I use it to help what we’re working on?” approach.

Beginning with teaching Kenny to stand and use sign language, then progressing to walking and talking using full sentences, Kletter has never taken her son’s milestones for granted.

“With the typically developing child it goes so fast and you just assume they will do the next thing,” Kletter said.It’s a perspective she gained when her daughter, Lilah, a typically developing child, was born. “With the disabled child you work so hard but you get to see the power of the human brain.”

That wonder has never gone away as Kenny has progressed. And it’s a feeling Norris shares as she watches her own son develop interests in complex subjects like music, politics and psychology.

“Noah’s just really interested in learning,” Norris said. She has always tried to foster her son’s curiosity.

That has meant answering a lot of questions, some of them about his own diagnosis. 

“I think it’s important to let kids understand themselves,” Norris said. She chose to be up front with Noah from the start. 

“They know, they can see… Anybody on the spectrum is way more capable than we give them credit for…  So, he’s always been able to come and ask, what does this mean? What does that mean? And now he goes online.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am today with self-esteem” if he’d grown up sheltered from this knowledge, Noah said. 

“I probably would have noticed other kids could write and also I would see things that were different than other kids.”

Instead, Noah has known about his challenges from the start and been an active participant in overcoming them. It’s a position he has mostly enjoyed.

“I struggle with motor skills – writing and stuff,” Noah pointed out. “So, I had scribes in school. I would tell a scribe what to write and they would write it down.”

He also had two Special Education teachers and an Autism Specialist on his team. Then, post-graduation he had access to Silverton High School’s Transition Program.

“It’s for young adults with disabilities – for teaching you job skills,” Noah said of the two-year program, during which students work with both a job coach and a job developer.

“They look at what’s meaningful to Noah,” Norris said. The program matches students first with internships and then – if all goes well – with jobs.

“I like going out in the community and volunteering,” Noah said of his experience interning at the Providence Benedictine Nursing Center. 

“I really like older people – the stories and the history. Usually, people think of beauty as a young thing but older people are beautiful, too.”

It’s a job Noah could picture himself settling into as a career – either that or working with disabled children.

“He’s actually done quite a bit with the school district,” Norris said. Noah volunteered in a middle school classroom. 

“I told the special education teacher I would go back and be an assistant,” Noah said. “Because since I have autism, I could help [autistic students] understand and adapt when things don’t go their way.”

Noah knows how critical building a supportive team is.

“Get them early intervention,” he stressed. “And treat them with respect and kindness, knowing that there’s a whole spectrum.”

Tips for fostering friendships 

• Be genuinely curious. Discover what their interests are and ask for more information.

• Upon asking questions, allow ample time for a response.

• Don’t assume you know what their strengths or challenges are. Ask. 

• Don’t exclude anyone.

• When planning a playdate, ask how you can be supportive. Find out ahead of time what the child likes to do and plan accordingly.

• In conversation with other parents, be kind. Remember that every child learns and grows at a different rate. 

• During playdates, be interactive. Assist with children getting to know one another.

• Remember that we’re all different.

• Talk to your kids about how to be a good friend. 

• Instead of approaching either parents or children with pity, meet them where they’re at.

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