About nine years ago, and shortly after the birth of their second child, Oak Park working moms Josephine Porter and Renee Davis learned that their first born, Emerson, then two-and-one-half, had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
At first, they dealt with the diagnosis but were crushed by the news.
“At age two-and-one-half, he wasn’t acting how I thought he should be acting, because we were very into, ‘OK, he is supposed to be able to do his ABCs now,’ and things like that. So, when he would finish a task, or hit a developmental milestone, I would check a box in my head,'” says Porter, an attorney with Northern Trust.
More red flags rose.
“Luckily Josephine had the mommy gut because at first I was more of the thought that he was a boy, he is delayed,” says Davis, an IT operations manager at BP. “And, he likes the rough and tumble, and was looking for the stimulation when he would crash into you, that tight pressure.”
Then, as parents they began proactively embracing the situation, and one of their avenues was to contact West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA), the nonprofit that provides recreation services for persons with disabilities in their park district setting or at WSSRA in its specialized programming geared for children with disabilities, says Marianne Birko, executive director.
Emerson’s, and his moms, first dip of the toe into the water, Porter recalls, came via a WSSRA swimming class for children with special needs at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
“The first three to four weeks he was just screaming and I couldn’t even get him into the water,” Porter says. “Then these great high school students, who were with WSSRA, would take him into the water and he would scream the entire time. There was never an eye roll, never an exhausted look. I could just weep about it because that was the point I needed someone to connect with him other than Renee and me. He needed someone, too.”
By the end of that first session of swimming, Porter says, in spite of his circumstances, Emerson was totally engaged with the teacher. However, getting to that point, Porter says, required some extra pre- and post-class preparation as they eased Emerson into the idea, which included taking photos of related events involving in going to swimming class.
“We had his speech therapist create a social story about swimming, because anything new would send him over the edge,” Porter said.
Now at age 11, with the support, or assistance of anWSSRA aide, Porter says he has performed in the annual ice show at Ridgeland Common, and joined in on park district T-ball, soccer and gymnastics programming.
Aide-assisted, this summer, he clowned around in a local circus camp, learning how to spin plates and more.
The next adventure for Emerson, says Davis, will be WSSRA’s social programming, where in a specialized, fun environment, he’ll go on group outings and sleep away trips.
“For Emerson,” Davis says “because of WSSRA, the sky is the limit.”
“WSSRA creates an environment where it is possible,” Porter says. “They know how quirky he is, and know his little buttons, and they protect him.”