With patience, hard work and life changing local resources Brady Richardson finds his stride
By Dwain Hebda, Photos Courtesy of Leah Richardson
Leah Richardson laughs out loud telling of her son, Brady, recently informing her of his career plans. “His dream job is to work at the zoo,” she said. “He just wrote a paper about it. It was hilarious. It was so funny.
He wants to take care of and feed the animals.”
Leah’s giggles have less to do with Brady’s choice of jobs and more to do with the unbridled joy she feels over her son’s aspiration. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that even simple dreams seemed an unfathomable luxury.
“He wasn’t talking at 5 and now he’s 10 and I can just have a regular conversation with him. That’s what’s so awesome,” she said. “There’s hope for me now that he might have typical development, you know?”
Leah and her husband, Michael, knew something was amiss with their son after 18 months of missed developmental milestones. Brady seemed to know it too, and his frustration would frequently bubble over in the
most heartbreaking way.
“The worst symptom was, he would get frustrated and hit his head on any wall or hard surface,” Leah said. “It was as if he were trying to take the information and trying to put something out, yet he couldn’t
Leah, a nurse, knew something of the ins and outs of the state’s health care system and started Brady on speech and occupational therapy when he was 1 year old. She also recognized the need for a formal diagnosis
as a prerequisite for additional therapy and services. In between, she and Michael settled in to serve Brady’s needs the best way they knew how.
“The hardest thing for us was not being able to communicate with him effectively when he was that young,” she said. “Seeing other kids hit those milestones when your child wasn’t was very, very hard. Life was really a
struggle from about age of 3 to 5; he only spoke maybe 10 words.”
When Brady was officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 3, Leah and Michael finally knew what they were dealing with, but it didn’t make the slap of reality any easier to take.
“It takes a while to kind of swallow the fact that hey, this is the road you’re going down,” Leah said. “It’s hard to find a place where you belong during that time, socially. We would be out eating and my son would be underneath the table and the waiter said, ‘Do you realize you have a kid underneath the table?’ I said, ‘Yes he’s doing just fine there. He feels protected.’”
At age 5, Brady was accepted into the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) waiver program of the Arkansas Autism Partnership. Children accepted into the program, sponsored by the University of Arkansas, receive up to 30 hours per week of intensive therapy services lasting two to three years. For Brady, the results were nothing short of astonishing.
“When we started the waiver program our lives literally turned around,” Leah said. “We had what was diagnosed as a severely autistic child and they were almost reversing his condition. He was speaking, he was
communicating. We could go places and he wouldn’t have tantrums. We could do things.”
The progress wasn’t without work. Brady was initially reluctant to go along with any of the therapists’ instructions, but once on board he made dramatic strides, even out in public.
“What ABA does is, it starts in the home and then it takes what the child has learned in the home and we would go places, whether it was the grocery store or McDonald’s,” Leah said. “He would have to order what he wanted
and exchange the money. It was tough for him, it was tough on all of us at first, but then he just did so wonderfully with it.”
Brady’s development got another shot in the arm through Access Schools in Little Rock where he’s rapidly making up ground on his academic progress.
“He’s been at Access for two years. He’s reading, he’s writing and we can have a real conversation,” she said. “For us, Access is wonderful.”
Brady still has a long way to go and his parents don’t kid themselves about that, but they’re thankful for the progress that has been made. They’ve learned right alongside of him how to better relate, and how a few simple
accommodations can yield big things in the real world.
“Getting into the community, we wouldn’t go to McDonald’s at peak hours, we would go when it was maybe not as busy,” Leah said. “We really appreciate people who are able to recognize something was going on if I said, ‘OK, just give him a minute.’ We learned where those people were and we knew which restaurants to go to that would be better for him.”
As for other families on the same journey, Leah’s advice is clear and direct—ask for help. “Parents like us, you have to have some alone time or respite,” she said. “We have a few family members that could take Brady and would be just fine with him while we went to a movie or whatever. It’s important during the hard times to have family and a few friends who really understand.”