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Ben with his ITAP team on the last day.  These ladies couldn't be more like family if they had the genetics to prove it.

Ben with his ITAP team on the last day. These ladies couldn’t be more like family if they had the genetics to prove it.

Many of us have enjoyed more family celebrations in the last couple of weeks than is typical throughout the entire rest of the year.  What better way to wrap up a year than celebrating with those closest to us?

Our family has changed many times over the years with marriages, babies, divorces of siblings and parents, more marriages and more babies.  Regardless of the physical make-up of the family tree, our family is blessed beyond measure as we are bound by love.

I’ve grown to learn that family isn’t always just those connected to you by genetics, but also by experience.  It could be the other moms we freeze our tails off with on the bleachers at our kids’ sporting events, or it could be the moms we bear our hearts to in Bible study groups.

This year, we’ve learned that family can also be expanded to include those who teach and help your child through therapy.  These ladies may have been our son’s teachers and therapists, but they have also become our trusted confidants and mentors in navigating life on the spectrum.

Ben was diagnosed with autism, expressive/receptive language disorder and a motor delay in May of 2012.  In June, he began attending the Intensive Therapeutic Autism Program (ITAP) at Easter Seals in Peoria.  For 26 weeks between June and December, we made the trek to Peoria twice a week and entertained ourselves throughout the afternoon while Ben was in therapy at ITAP for three hours, two afternoons a week; all this, after he’d been at preschool in Avon all morning.  On those two days, he boarded the bus with the best bus driver ever, Mr. Terry, at 7:30 a.m. and returned home after three hours of intense therapy at about 6 p.m.  To say they were long days would be the understatement of the year.

I know there are many a folk who make the drive for work five days a week.  My hat’s off to you.  I honestly don’t know how you do it and maintain any sense of normalcy in your life.  I struggled.  Perhaps it was the kicking and screaming and crying of a little boy who just wanted to go home and run down to the tree and back.  Perhaps it was the seemingly endless hours of hanging out in the toy aisle at any number of local retailers entertaining his three-year-old little sister.  Perhaps it was the worry that the older kids were feeling slighted by the need to assist in keeping things running at home.  Perhaps it was the not knowing if any of it would sink in and help.  But it has.  It has helped in so many ways.

We’ve seen our son grow from a little boy who would retreat to his room and immerse himself in Blue’s Clues and Barney in an attempt to block out the rest of the world when anyone would come to our house into a boy who will peer over the half wall above our entryway and say, “Welllllllllll, hello ‘dere!” greeting visitors.  I’ve watched my son grow from a scared little boy who cried at the onset of ITAP to one who happily went into class saying, “See you later, Mom.”  And most recently, I’ve been blessed by his ever so soft words, “I … want to go back ‘dere.” when he saw the picture of himself with his ITAP team.  This from the boy who on most days would cry and scream, “I want to be all done with Easter Seals school.”  Truly, it was not the school or the therapy, it was the drive, for once he saw the school, he was smiling and pointing and saying, “ ‘Dere’s Easter Seals School.”

Yes, these ladies have grown to be our family.  And so have the parents of the other children in his class.  At ITAP, there are six kids per class, with at least a 1-1 ratio with adult therapists.  It’s just an amazing program.  We cannot recommend it highly enough.

I doubt I’ll ever forget the day I walked in to get Ben and met a classmate of his walking out with his dad.  Like most children on the spectrum, Daniel* struggles with eye contact and communication is sometimes difficult at best.  So, when Daniel looked me straight in the eye as we passed, I noticed.  My heart leapt for joy for Daniel and his dad that he was able to make and maintain eye contact.  And then it hit me, Daniel’s coat looked very familiar.  I mentioned it to his dad, but didn’t think much of it because there’s another classmate whose coat is very similar to Ben’s as well.  However, when I turned and watched them walk away, I realized Daniel’s backpack was also the same as Ben’s.

I asked his dad if we could check it out & of course we did, only to learn that Daniel had grabbed Ben’s by mistake.  We laughed as his dad explained Daniel had just had a birthday and he thought it was maybe new stuff or hand-me-downs from a cousin and again when I explained inside of Ben’s coat bore the name of a cousin of his who had handed down the coat to him.  Isn’t it great we’re all in this together?

We ventured back inside where we had another good laugh explaining it to the gal who met us at the door wondering why Daniel was back inside.  And then it happened.  Daniel pointed to the coat and backpack, looked me square in the eye again, and said, “Ben.”

Tears filled my eyes and that’s when I knew that sometimes family has nothing to do with genetics or marriage or any legal documents.  Family is comprised of those who touch our hearts.

Thank you, Daniel and dad.  Thank you, ITAP staff.  You will forever be etched in the hearts of the Janssens as “family”.

* Names have been changed for privacy.


1 Comment

  1. Dorothy Miller says:

    Another great column.

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