Seven-year-old Jaxson and his 4-year-old brother John have a lot in common. Both are brown-eyed, brown-haired, inquisitive, and very active. They live with their parents, Tracy and Staff Sargent Brandon Pennington, near Camp Geiger in North Carolina. And both have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Jaxson was diagnosed when he was about 2 years old. He received applied behavior analysis (ABA) services from therapists at the May Institute’s Center for ASD in Jacksonville, N.C. His parents were overjoyed when Jaxson successfully transitioned from a preschool classroom for children with special needs into a classroom for typically developing students. It was during that time that John was born.
John was diagnosed when he was 18 months old. Like Jaxson, he receives ABA services from May Institute therapists.
Their mom, Tracy Pennington, shares her thoughts on raising two boys on the spectrum, the family’s relationship with May’s behavioral therapists who work with the boys, and life on a military base.
Jaxson is doing really well in third grade this year. He rides the bus with all the typically developing kids. He has an IEP, and the school is really good about working with us. Christina, his May therapist, says Jaxson is doing so well that he doesn’t need the one-on-one support he used to get. She’s a very big help – she came to an IEP meeting with me last year. With my husband being gone so much, it’s nice to have someone there to support me.
Because of our experience with Jaxson, I knew what to look for and what to do with John. When we had him assessed at 18 months, he wasn’t saying any words. His autism isn’t as severe as Jaxson’s, but he does qualify for walk-in speech services and ABA through TRICARE. This year, he’s in a pre-kindergarten class with typically developing kids.
I know Jaxson wouldn’t be where he is today without the ABA therapy he received at an early age. That has made a profound difference for him and I know it will for John too.
I have learned a lot from our therapists – Anne, Camille, Christina and Rachel – about ABA techniques like positive reinforcement and ignoring bad behavior and setting expectations. ABA strategies are good parenting strategies. It’s important to follow through with the therapy at home. ABA works. I’ve seen it work. I learned a lot from Jaxson’s experience that I now use with John. If you do what the therapists do, you will succeed. ABA is far superior to any other treatment out there.
By teaching us ABA techniques, our May therapists have helped us be able to go to the grocery store. That sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not when you have two kids on the autism spectrum. Just being able to go out with them is a big, big thing.
Christina and Camille are more than therapists for my boys. I feel like they are my personal counselors as well. They have helped me so much, as have so many others in our community.
When you live on a base, you are surrounded by other military family members. Everybody is supportive because they are all experiencing the same challenges. But you also have a shared sense of pride. Every day, we “do colors.” That’s when they raise or lower the flag on the base. A song is played over a loudspeaker and everyone stops what they are doing and stands in silence. We remember that our loved ones who are not with us are protecting our country.
Jaxson says he wants to be a military man like his daddy. I tell him he can do whatever he wants to do. When I hear him talk about his future, it makes me feel hopeful.
I was devastated when he was diagnosed with autism and wondered if he would be able to have a ‘normal’ life. Now I know that he will because of the ABA therapy he received at an early age. That has made a profound difference for him, and we know it will for John as well. I have hope that both my boys will go to high school and college, have friends, get married, and have jobs and homes of their own.
-Tracy, Jaxson and John’s mother
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