Jessica Solberg, 35, has six kids, age 7 to six months old. Her middle children are a boy and a girl, 3-year-old twins.
At age 2, one of them, Johnny, began distancing himself from the family.
It was the indicator she later wished they hadn't missed.
"We used to joke that Johnny was born into the wrong family. He needed to be with two kids, not six," says Solberg, during a recent therapy session at Oak-Leyden Developmental Services in Oak Park. "As far as being hugged and taking kisses, that has never been Johnny's problem, which is why it took us a long time to realize that he was on the autism spectrum because he was so engaged with me at home."
Solberg had him checked for autism, and the pediatrician said he was fine.
But the gains he had made in speech were digressing, and when "my husband came home from work, I don't even know if he knew his dad existed." Solberg knew something else was going on.
Six months later, in lieu of procuring a second opinion for autism, Johnny underwent an assessment and began receiving early childhood intervention services at Oak-Leyden.
When parents do more
Last year, when Johnny aged out of the federally-funded and state-mandated early child intervention programming, Solberg chose to continue his treatment on a private pay basis, which is an option for families whose children are developmentally delayed and already receiving treatment.
"Just because a child presents this way today and may have a diagnosis of autism does not mean they cannot be a very, very different child a couple of years from now," says Rachel Wood, division chief of Children's Services at Oak-Leyden. "But it often takes a lot to get there. Here we are doing a 'playtime' therapeutic approach that is floor-based."
For about two and a half years now, three times a week for about an hour, Johnny, his mom, and his 5-year-old sister Ava work with Danielle Lemon, the occupational therapist, and speech therapist Renee Petlicki on-site to "play through" the DIR (developmental, individual-difference, relationship-based) model. This unique therapy is expanding his circles of communication, using a child-directed approach that builds on his strengths, Lemon says.
"Johnny needs a lot of movement and heavy work pushing, pulling — deep pressure kinds of things to get his body organized," she says. "We do all sorts of movement like swinging him, playing hide and seek, throwing him up and crashing him on big pillows, and blowing and popping bubbles. When he gets all those kinds of inputs, he is more engaged with everything around him."
Johnny, who recently turned 4, has made great strides, which is emotionally powerful for his mom.
"I want Johnny to be able to do everything his siblings are doing; that's why I have worked so hard on him having therapies outside of his preschool program in Oak Park," Solberg says. "We can go to family parties and he is part of the gang, and at home he runs to his dad and hugs him. This has been a life-changer for us."