Elizabeth Love James wears many hats: Family Peer Ambassador, autism mom, parent advocate, and educator.
She and her husband, Trey, are parents to their son, Reid, born in June of 2018. James is a writing coach for students in grades first through fifth at Reidsville Elementary School.
"We noticed that Reid was not meeting his milestones on time. He was late to crawl, walk, and talk. As first-time parents, we were clueless on where he was 'supposed' to be. I assumed if there was a problem that his pediatrician would notify us," James said, in sharing her story with Glennville Rotarians at their Wednesday, May 11, 2022, meeting.
However, the pediatrician did not notify Reid's parents. Instead, Reid's daycare teacher encouraged James to get Reid evaluated for speech.
"She pointed out that he would not interact with his peers, had a hard time adjusting to change, and was unable to express his wants and needs like other kids his age," James said.
Even though the couple began traveling twice a week to Vidalia to speech therapy and saw major improvements, they suspected there was more to Reid's issues.
James often Googles a subject, and that is what she immediately did. She saw what are seen as the early signs of autism: inability to relate to others; hyperactivity or passivity; over sensitivity or under sensitivity to sound; unusual behavior or body movements; poor speech or lack of speech; strange attachment to objects; avoiding eye contact; difficulty dealing with change; lack of awareness of danger; inappropriate laughing or crying fits; and unusual play or repetitive play.
Although James and her husband still wanted to deny in their minds that many of these autistic traits described Reid, in May of 2021 they decided to pursue getting him tested for autism. Yet, when she called, James was told that the first available appointment would be in September at Joye Psychology and Wellness, whose services she had thoroughly researched.
"On September 8, 2021, Trey and I visited Dr. Joye's office in Savannah, where Reid was evaluated, and we were soon told that Reid had Level 1 autism. In the past, this Level 1 was often referred to as Asperger's Syndrome, although this term is no longer used when diagnosing children now," she said. "The good news was that Reid was described as high functioning and would need 20 hours of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy a week, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Of course, we were in shock, and began questioning how we would be able to fit this into our lives since both of us work full time," James said.
ABA therapy programs help increase language and communication skills; improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics; and decrease problem behaviors.
After some additional Googling, she was encouraged that Reid had Level 1 autism instead of Levels 2 or 3, and that he was high functioning was another plus. He also had several of the autistic strengths that these children often have, such as attention to detail, creativity, memory, and kindness, just to name a few.
"People are born with autism just as someone is born with brown hair or freckles. Autism affects how someone's brain develops. It affects them in three ways: socially, communication, and behavior. I visited the website Autism Speaks to gain a better understanding of autism," she said. "In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that approximately one in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Boys are four more times likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.”
The couple utilize the services of Positive Behavior Supports (PBS), which provides therapy in the James home in Reidsville four days a week for three hours at a time.
Trey and Elizabeth provided Reid with a sensory playroom and therapy room for him in which to play this past Christmas, which includes a swing, ball pit, light-up table, sensory bins, interactive games, puzzles, and art supplies.
Reid also attends another intervention four days a week at Reidsville Elementary School (RES) called PIP (Pre-K Intervention Program). James points out that the program is awesome in addition to being free and available at both elementary schools in the county. PIP begins serving students as soon as they turn three years of age, and the program includes various skills.
In addition, Reid sees a speech therapist at RES and receives occupational therapy once a week, which is all at no charge to the parents.
Because of her stressful autism path for information and services, James, despite her already heavy load, agreed to serve as a Family Peer Ambassador. In this capacity, she can share Reid's autism journey, which opens the door for so many people in similar situations. Through her Messenger, she hears from moms who need guidance on where to evaluate their child, what services are provided at public schools, what therapies to use, and how to apply for financial help. Becoming an ambassador has opened a door to allow her to help families with autism as well as special needs.
These include CAPS (Childcare and Parent Services), Georgia Seeds for Success, Happy Helpings, Georgia Pre-K Program, and Babies Can't Wait. Also, Quality Rated Childcare gives ratings for childcare facilities. Milestone Tracker is a free app that allows parents to plug in information about their child to alert them if the child is behind and offer advice.
"Autism doesn't come with a manual. It comes with a parent who never gives up," James said. "I will never give up on Reid. I will always spread awareness and acceptance. It is our new reality. I want him to feel included, loved, and accepted in this world. It is my job as his mother to help make that happen.”