March 21 05:54 AM

Love and understanding

Capac couple rewrites family story through growth, strength and change

Posing in front of a backdrop she painted, Michell Waddy, husband Paul and son Ryan spend quality time together in their Capac home. Family time has helped nurture Ryan, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and has paid off in his growth and progression.

June 06, 2007
Practice. Discipline. Structure. Patience. These are the vows of love Michell and Paul Waddy take every day.

Progress. Evolution. Growth. Strength. Knowledge. Understanding. Love. These are the gifts they receive from the vow. A determination to make the best life they can for their 8-year-old son Ryan, for their marriage, for their family, for themselves. Ryan is autistic. And they're all on a journey together.

In hindsight, Michell believes she'd have seen some early warning signs, may have done some things differently—like avoiding vaccinations—had she been armed with the information she's gathered along the way. A life changing event changed everything for Michell, including her future goals and aspirations. If it all works out, she'll soon be helping other children and families living with the same challenges. She's half-way toward reaching her goal of becoming a special education teacher.

Storybook romance

High school sweethearts from just about the moment they met at Capac High, Michelle and Paul have been together for 19 years. They weren't in a huge hurry to have children, but they were thrilled when they learned one was on the way shortly after they decided it was time.

Though Michell was diligent about eating the right foods and taking care of herself while she was expecting, the pregnancy was difficult.

"It was a rough pregnancy, I had a lot of pre-term labor and Ryan was born five weeks premature," she says.

Ryan's early entry into the world came with the anticipated problems. Michell ended up losing her job as a graphic artist at Champion Bus because she had to take so much time off.

"He had lung problems, they weren't fully developed and he was on a ventilator in ICU," she says.

But Ryan rallied, and after Michell and Paul were able to take him home, things seemed to be just fine.

A turn of the page

Ryan was a fairly healthy baby save for frequent ear infections, Michell says, and a "really good baby," too. Today she realizes those things may have been clues.

"A lot of ear infections are really common in autistic kids," Michell says. "And he never cried, wasn't a real 'asking for' baby, and even when he was really little he'd spend hours and hours staring at the light."

While those traits weren't alarming, Michell had an inkling that something wasn't quite right.

"I have two older sisters who have seven children between them and I was always around babies," Michell says. "When you grow up around that many babies and then you have your own and yours is different, you see all these differences."

The differences were also apparent to Michell's mother-in-law, Linda Waddy, who opened the door for Michell to confront the future. Ryan was about eight months old.

"She had a talk with me and she was very kind," Michell says. "She said 'I don't know how to say this to you but I see this...and I see that..'(about Ryan's behavior)."

Ryan could occupy himself for hours with simple things, Michell says, like spinning a pan lid for hours. He liked watching the same children's cartoon videos over and over and over again.

When Ryan received his second vaccination at 18 months, Michell says his behavior changed drastically.

"He had a decrease in appetite, he was not very verbal, it really seemed to hit him," she says.

A new story

Michell found out about an 'Early On' program offered through the St. Clair County Mental Health program. She brought Ryan in for an evaluation and left feeling devastated. That devastation soon became determination.

"I was told Ryan was speech impaired, physically impaired, occupationally impaired and carried signs of autism," she says. "I left there a mess. I knew there was stuff wrong but I didn't believe all that."

It turns out Michell's beliefs were right. She enrolled Ryan, then 3, in a pre-primary impaired program offered in the Capac School District. Today, Ryan is a 3rd grader in the special education program, where he's blossomed under the guidance of Linda Taylor, who Michell describes as "just wonderful."

Michell has also met and gained support from other moms facing similar challenges and attended support group meetings when her schedule allowed.

One support group organizer, Paula Bellhorn of Memphis, organizes trips for the parents and kids to do together, jaunts to the zoo or picnics.

Michell and Paul have also been bolstered by the friendship and advice of Sherry Shine-Thompson, a social worker who worked in the Capac School District, and Leslie Brown. Their close friends and family members have offered support and understanding as well, Michell says.

"Our family life is very different from most people and our friends understand that and make adjustments for us," she says.

Work in progress

Though they've been challenged with making adjustments to ensure Ryan's growth and success, Michell and Paul's relationship remained steady. Michell says Paul has been a touchstone, strong and caring in every way.

"After we went through the self-blame and the asking 'what did we do wrong?' we realized we didn't do anything wrong," Michell says. "It took a little while to accept that we had a special child, but once reality set in we didn't say 'Oh my God, poor us!' We said 'What can we do to make everything good for Ryan?'

Making things good includes having a structured home life. Meals are served at the same time every day, bath and bedtime always consistent. Any anticipated change in the schedule is prepared for days in advance by repetition and a tool called a 'social story.'

"Structure benefits Ryan completely, it's really important to autistic children," Michell says. "Repetition, too. He's a very visual child so if we know we're going to do something he's not familiar with, we sit down and write a 'social story' and we read it over and over and over again."

Michell says Ryan does very well with the written word, he began reading when he was just 3. He also comprehends well, but a planned schedule and structured life remain paramount to Ryan's happiness, success and well-being.

"Good surprises are okay sometimes, but as far as surprises like 'we're not going to be doing what we planned today because it didn't work out' is not good. Things are very structured for a reason," Michell says.

The reason? Avoiding a 'meltdown,' the term used to describe an outburst that occurs with autistic children.

It's often misunderstoon, Michell says, and she'd like to see that change.

"It's why it's hard to go out in public sometimes," she says. "There's been times when people think 'why don't you control that brat' or say 'just use discipline,' but they don't understand my child. My husband and I are very careful in public. We don't want to expose Ryan to that negativity."

Michell and Paul also work together to assure that Ryan is always cared for by one or the other of them. Paul is a self-employed carpenter, so he watches Ryan when Michell is putting in her 30 hours at Lucky's in Imlay City, and when she's in the classroom working toward her degree.

"We schedule our jobs and schooling around Ryan," Michell says, adding that Paul is a great father and husband.

"I give him a lot of credit for being the wonderful father that he is," she says. "He has made so many changes. People say 'what have you done to him? We don't ever see him,' and I say 'he's home with his pride and joy!'"

Michell and Paul's nurturing care has paid off. Ryan is more social and able to take on outings such as roller skating with his dad and family trips to the park and the beach.

A happy ending

Ryan's progression fuels and inspires Michell, who is determined to help other families rise to the challenge when faced with similar circumstances. At times, she says, she felt frustrated by the assistance that was available and felt somewhat helpless and alone.

"People don't hand out books and all that and other moms aren't in your situation so you feel like you're on your own," Michell says.

"If I can become an educator for these children and try to make life easier for the parents because I know what they're going through, I've been there, that's what I want to do," she continues.

She'd also like to heighten awareness about autism so people will be more informed and perhaps less judgmental.

"Don't feel sorry for me because of what I have," Michell says. "Be aware. Just understand. That's a big thing for parents with autistic children, just for other to people to understand the kind of life we live.

"There is nothing you can do except accept it, understand it and control it," she continues. "One of the main things I've learned is that you cannot fight the autism, you learn all about it and you deal with it."

That formula works for the Waddy family. Bolstered by Ryan's progress thus far, Michell hopes he may be able to attend middle school as a mainstream child.

"I'm very excited about the future," Michell says. "And I can't wait to make a difference."

Along with Paul, she already has.

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