It’s lunchtime at the Lenzini household, and 3-year-old Ben is ready and doing his happy dance.
His mother, Contessa, sets down the plate in front of him.
“Blue square!” Ben says, pointing to the plate.
“Green,” he says, pointing to his fork.
“Red,” he chimes again, this time pointing to the ketchup.
Lunchtime wraps up, and Ben grabs some blocks, carefully matching each according to color.
“He does this with everything,” Contessa says with a smile. “He knows all his shapes, colors, and alphabet and can count up to 14.”
Had someone told Contessa her little boy would be gleefully naming everything in sight today, she would’ve thought it impossible. Ben has autism, and it wasn’t until about six months ago that he even started talking.
At 20 months, Ben was nonverbal, made no eye contact, and had angry and sometimes violent behaviors. Contessa was recognizing these behaviors as signs of autism, but everyone that she turned to told her “he is a typical 2-year-old.”
With no family support, and feeling like everyone was against her, Contessa began to think there was no hope for her son. Unwilling to give up, she came looking for answers and help for her son at United Way supported Community Link. Just as Contessa suspected, Ben was diagnosed with autism, and with the help of Community Link’s First Step Early Head Start Learning and Family Support Program, she is more determined than ever to make sure her son succeeds and lives a normal life.
Through the program, which provides early, continuous, intensive, and comprehensive child development and family support services, Ben was able to receive the therapy he needed, and at the age of 3 1/2 years, he has improved majorly in all aspects of development.
Things that were once a daily reality for the family are now becoming a distant memory. Ben used to just throw books, but now loves to read. Before, he would simply giggle when you said his name, but he is now able to identify himself. He was unsure of how to play with other children and would use violence as an action of caring, but now is loveable toward everyone and even has a few best friends.
First Step’s Parent Educator/Health Services Assistant, Rachel Poettker, met Ben when he joined the program and recalls the struggles they first encountered.
Ben was a challenge when it came to patience and focusing on an activity, which meant “many activities were done at the pace Ben wanted to do them,” Rachel said.
But with the help of Contessa, Rachel used a lot of creativity when planning activities. They used flashcards, music, books, role playing and even puppets.
Because of the support and guidance First Step provided, Ben knows that play is a way for him to learn and grow. While Ben still occasionally has anger issues, he is getting much better with using his words and signs. Ben can say two to three word sentences, asks for help to resolve problems and is finally saying “mommy.” His vocabulary has exploded.
For a typical 3 1/2-year-old, most of these are developmentally appropriate, but for a child with autism, these are daily challenges that can only be achieved with the patient guidance of family, Early Head Start staff and therapists.
Thanks to the fierce determination of a mother fighting to find the best resources for her child, Ben has shown how intelligent he is and how a label is not going to stop anyone from succeeding in life. Today, Ben is thriving in his local Early Childhood Education Program and Head Start in Centralia, Illinois.
“He’s achieved so much, and nothing is going to stop him from achieving more,” Contessa said.
Without United Way support, this outcome may not have been possible. United Way funding enables the First Step program to maintain services families rely on for information, support, and guidance to ensure children, like Ben, reach their full potential.
About Community Link’s First Step Early Head Start
First Step Early Head Start helps children and families succeed. First Step has an emphasis on high quality services and is dedicated to improving outcomes for children of low income families to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs. Community Link has been a United Way funded agency since 1999.