Finding Aden's Voice
Amanda Oldham knew just what to do when her son Aden 'disappeared' on her. At 18 months old, he quit talking and began avoiding eye contact. He had been a typical toddler, building a steady vocabulary, when the Oldham family’s life changed.
By Amy Gordy Photography by Lily Darragh
Looking back, Amanda Oldham said the change in Aden was pretty gradual. She thinks she would have caught it sooner if there had been a sudden shift. The light switched on for her one day, however, when she walked into her living room to find Aden sitting in the middle of the floor, rocking and looking at the ceiling. “I knew something was wrong. He just kind of disappeared on us. He stopped talking, looking at us and laughing, which was really hard for me as a mom. It’s really hard when you can’t tell if your baby is happy or not,” Oldham said.
She had been through a similar journey with her middle son, Ethan, now 14, when a friend who had a child with autism expressed her concern about him.
“When Ethan was almost 2, my best friend pulled me aside and used her ‘best friend privilege.’ I knew she was about to say something I didn’t want to hear. She said there was something going on that I was missing, and that Ethan seemed a little delayed,” Oldham said.
Thanks to her friend’s urging, Oldham signed Ethan up at Allied Therapy, a pediatric therapy group specializing in developmental, speech, occupational and physical therapy, where he did a year of early intervention and was eventually diagnosed at age 5 with Asperger syndrome, a subtype of autism generally considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum.
Studies show that early intervention for children with autism, even in children as young as 18 months, is very effective for improving IQ, language ability and social interaction.
“Thankfully, I knew what to do when we realized something was going on with Aden. First, I cried for two days, and that wasn’t helping anything. Then, I called Allied Therapy to get him into early intervention. They sent someone to my house and got him set up for evaluation. We’ve been with them for seven years now. His autism is pretty severe, but he’s made great progress,” she said.
Aden remained nonverbal until the age of 4. His therapists taught him sign language, and he had learned to sign 40 or so words when one day his voice came back.
“I still remember the day he walked into our kitchen, and he just looked up at me out of the blue and said, ‘Momma.’ I nearly lost it, but I tried not to freak out and scare him. I looked at him and said, ‘What do you need?’ and he signed back to me. It was pretty sweet.”
Building back a vocabulary was not an easy path for Aden. Oldham said the words came back slowly, one at a time, and because he had learned to communicate with sign language, he became very frustrated that he could not communicate as easily with his voice.
“Becoming verbal again kind of regressed him because he had a very limited vocabulary. He wouldn’t try to speak and do sign language at the same time—it was one or the other, all or nothing. His meltdowns increased dramatically until his vocabulary caught up. It was really hard to watch as a mom. We knew he knew what he wanted, but it was like having a toddler-sized newborn trying to help him find the words,” she said.
In addition to regaining his speech, Aden has made other advancements through therapy. His therapy started out in small increments to cater to his attention span, and has branched out into speech, occupational, physical and hippotherapy, the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment.
“Aden’s at a stage now where he’s working on a lot of speech therapy. He doesn’t have very clear speech. We understand him and the therapists understand him, but he still has a long way to go. In occupational therapy, he’s working on fine motor skills—grasping small objects, those types of things. He does physical therapy though there’s not really anything physically wrong, it’s more to train his body to do what his brain tells him to—to reconnect the links.”
Oldham has been thrilled with the therapists at Allied Therapy. “The therapists have been great at figuring out what makes him tick, and how to make therapy work to his benefit. They are amazing, and like family because we’ve been there so long,” she said.
Oldham homeschools her three sons, so she can take Aden to therapy twice a week. She started homeschooling when her oldest, Trevor, 16, was starting kindergarten. “I’m a trained legal assistant, but have always stayed home with the boys except for a short while when my husband, Matt, their stepdad, stayed home with them. For my husband to get that time with them was priceless. He did homeschool, therapy appointments—if it needed to be done at home he did it.”
Oldham is back holding the reins, running Aden to appointments at Allied and Beyond Boundaries, where he receives therapy on horseback.
“The hippotherapy is an amazing thing to watch. I’ve seen Aden in a full-blown meltdown, and just a couple of times around the arena and he calms down. My oldest son volunteers at Beyond Boundaries, and it’s become a family event. When Trevor became old enough he wanted to volunteer. [Special needs] is his normal because it’s what he’s always dealt with regarding his brothers,” she said.
The three Oldham boys are very different, but get along like any band of brothers would. “The older two are typical and pick at each other, but are all very sweet. It’s been one of our things that you have to respect each other in our house,” she said, and described her sons and their unique personalities fondly:
“Trevor is an extremely sweet kid, really mature for his age, and had to grow up quite a bit faster with two brothers with special needs. He’s 16 going on 40, and he has a really big heart and a ton of patience.
“Ethan is really funny, and has a great sense of humor, which is kind of a hard thing because people on the spectrum don’t typically pick up on humor—he’s had to work at it. He loves music, and recently found his voice as far as self-advocating to let us know what we can do for him.
“Aden is just fun! He loves baseball and anything to do with Hot Wheels. He works very hard at therapy, and it’s been amazing to watch him grow, and succeed, and surpass anything we’d hoped for.”