Janie is sitting at the kitchen table, engrossed in her artwork. Giraffes and elephants dance across the page as her mom, Ann, rests a gentle hand on her shoulder to get her attention and says, “Janie, can you tell me who the president is?” Janie looks up at her mom and gleefully says “Barack Oh-BAH-ma,” drawing out the syllables and taking time to enjoy each sound.
“His name is her favorite thing to say,” Ann says, smiling at her daughter. It’s impressive for any four-year-old to know who the president is, but for Janie, it’s an almost remarkable feat. Janie has autism, a disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate, understand language, play, and relate to others. But for Janie, early intervention has made an amazing difference.
Fortunately, Ann and her husband, Jim, were able to spot the signs so early because their oldest daughter, Lily, also has autism. Lily was a bright and cheery toddler who happily participated in music and gymnastics classes, but long after most children have delighted their parents with their first words, Lily still wasn’t talking. She had a hard time adjusting to new people and understanding body language and other social cues. Unsure of what Lily was facing, Jim and Ann followed the recommendation of a friend and turned to the experts at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. A speech-language pathologist evaluated Lily, and found that she was showing many of the signs of autism.
“Before we had the girls, I taught 5th and 6th grade, and I often had students with autism in my classroom,” says Ann. “ You’d think I would have seen the signs in Lily, but autism is so different in younger children.”
The team at Kennedy Krieger helped Ann and Jim get Lily enrolled in one of the Institute’s partnership school programs in Northwest Baltimore. The teachers in the partnership programs are trained by the staff at Kennedy Krieger in the latest interventions. It was a perfect fit for Lily.
“When Lily walked into that classroom, she was instantly at ease,” says Ann. “It completely changed our lives.” The progress just kept coming, and, amazingly, Lily was talking just a little over a year later.
So when 10-month-old Janie wasn’t babbling or responding to her name like most babies her age, Ann and Jim returned to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where an evaluation once again indicated red flags for autism. Because Janie was younger than Lily had been, they enrolled her in the Institute’s Early Achievements program, a research and training classroom developed to determine the most effective treatment approaches for improving speech, language, play, and social skills.
“Getting the diagnosis of autism wasn’t any easier the second time,” admits Ann, “but we knew that our daughter was in the right place.” And just like her big sister, Janie was making progress. She began making eye contact and responding to her name, and then she started talking.
“I know that some of their progress may seem small, or slow to come,” Ann says. “But it’s progress. I look at the girls and know it’s happening; that the interventions are working.”
And for Ann, there is one moment that sticks out above all the others. Each night when she tucks Janie into bed, she hugs her daughter and says, “I love you, Janie.” And each night, Janie hugged her mom without saying a word. But one night, as Ann walked into the warm glow of the hallway, she heard a sound that changed everything. That sound was Janie’s tiny little voice saying “I love you, Mommy.”
“That was the moment I knew everything would be all right,” says Ann.