ARLINGTON — Tricia Benfield says it was her “mommy intuition.”
Before her son, Lawson, was even a year old, she sensed “things are just different for him.”
From infancy, baths and contact with water, especially on his face, triggered unusual amounts of tears. When she tried to clip his fingers and toenails, he was so fussy and distraught she had to hold him down.
Her son made no eye contact when spoken to and didn’t respond to his name. He didn’t react even to the distinct sound of passing trains or the piercing wails of sirens.
When Lawson was about 12 months of age, his father, Troy, walked up behind him one day clapping his hands. Lawson didn’t react or even turn his head. “I think our son is deaf,” Troy told his wife.
About this time, Lawson suddenly stopped eating familiar food like cheese and yogurt. The only thing he would take in was whole milk, three times a day.
He still wasn’t talking, so he couldn’t communicate what was wrong.
Small things, like when his mom was on the phone and she laughed, would trigger an out-of-proportion outburst. He would cry and beat his head against the closest surface — whether it was tiles, wood or carpet — sometimes so hard he split his chin open.
“It was terrible to see your son go through that and not have an answer of what to do,” his mom said. “That was my trigger point where I needed to seek help, the family needed help, Lawson needed help.”
She had tried to talk to a doctor about her concerns but felt they weren’t taken seriously. It wasn’t until a physician witnessed Tricia trying to calm her son and prevent him from beating his head during an appointment that the doctor finally referred her to a child psychiatrist.
That, in turn, led to a referral to Providence Children’s Center in Everett, which assists children with physical and developmental issues.
“Just walking into the facility and going down the hallway … I felt a sense of peace,” Benfield said. “I felt, ‘Oh my goodness. We have arrived. We are where we belong and we will get the help we need.’”
In August, Providence will open a new autism center there, and the Benfields will be among the first to participate in a new, more-intensive autism program.
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At the first few appointments, specialists peppered her with questions about what Lawson did and didn’t do, such as his problems with speech, comprehension and interacting with people.
“It was reassuring to talk with them,” she said. “They knew exactly what I was talking about.”
Initially, they diagnosed him with a sensory disorder. About a year later, when he turned 3 in June 2013, Benfield asked for her son to be evaluated to see if he was in the autism spectrum.
Tears streaked her face when the diagnosis was confirmed, but at the same time there was a sense of relief. “It helps us understand Lawson that much more,” she said.
The diagnosis opened the doors to more services for her son, including developmental preschool.
At the children’s center, there’s speech therapy once a week. Occupational therapy every other week helps him with skills such as eating, bathing and transitions from one activity to the next — a big challenge for children with autism.
A year ago, his vocabulary was limited to five to 10 words, including “please,” “thank you,” “bless you,” “hot” and “no.”
While some moms might cringe when their child responds with an assertive “no,” Benfield was delighted.
“It gives me goose bumps to think about when he could use the word no,” she said. “No is a form of communication. Rather than freaking out and being distraught and upset, he could say, “No, thank you!”
An iPad not only helped Lawson with language skills but with identifying shapes, colors and his surroundings — bridges, overpasses, semi-trucks, airplanes and helicopters. “You name it, it’s an ongoing dialogue,” his mom said. “Never a quiet moment on the road.”
He learned to count to 20 in two weeks. It left his mom joyfully wondering: “What in the world happened?”
Still, gaps remain. When asked his name, he’s not able to answer, although he knows his name.
He remains sensitive to noises of daily life. He’s fine with hearing the waves at the ocean. But if taken to an indoor pool, his patience is a ticking alarm clock, ending about 30 minutes after arrival. “Too loud!” he says. “All done.”
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Meal time, and what Lawson will eat, remains a guessing game. He might eat cherry tomatoes for two days and then not eat them for two months. A week ago, he ate some blueberries, but if that will remain among his menu choices is in question. “It’s constantly offering food, making it available,” his mom said. “You never know that one time he will say, ‘Sure.’”
Yet his mom has seen big changes over the past year, too. A boy who could be so self-absorbed that he wouldn’t respond to children playing around him now makes eye contact and greets children’s center classmates as they walk into the room.
“Other parents wouldn’t think anything of it for their child to walk in and say hello to their friends,” Benfield said. “For my child and others at the center, it’s an achievement.”
His parents see Lawson’s progress not just in big steps like language but in smaller, often unexpected, everyday moments.
Bath times have evolved from near-torture to a more normal morning routine. His mom cues him to what’s about to happen next. “I rinse his hair three times,” she says. “After the second time, he says, ‘OK, one more time! Close eyes tight. Head back.’ He’s good to go.”
When Lawson turned 3 last year, his mom wondered how to celebrate. Her son had never been interested in birthdays, presents or even cake. “He didn’t like all the attention and noise,” she said. But at her husband’s urging, she decided to buy him a cake and decorate it with candles.
Lawson was delighted. He blew out the candles. And when they lit them again, he did it over and over. “It was the best evening,” his mom said. “We were taking in that moment with our son.”
Benfield said she’s already excited about his upcoming birthday on June 18, when Lawson turns 4. The party will have a Superman theme because “he’s a hero in my mind,” his mom said. Four of his cousins have been invited. There will be a bouncy house and even presents.
“Now he brings me so much joy,” his mom said. “His sweet little face. His laughter is so infectious. To see him happy, all this is so worth it.
“You learn to be grateful for the little things in life and not take it for granted,” she said. “I appreciate getting that lesson in life and I can learn that lesson through his autism.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or email@example.com