Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Special Dads for Special Kids


Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

TYLER Jackson walked into the grocery store and immediately fell to the ground screaming. As his ears started hurting from his own noise, Tyler covered them tightly with the palms of his hands but kept yelling. His 6-4, 302-pound father stood by, watching helplessly.
As an offensive lineman for the Texans, Scott Jackson lines up without fear each day in practice, going head-to-head against defensive tackles even bigger than he is. But there at the grocery store, a 2 1/2 -year-old boy standing 40 inches and weighing 45 pounds rendered him helpless.
Scott had no idea what triggered the tantrum. Perhaps it was the Lightning McQueen birthday balloon, which made Tyler suddenly want to see the Cars movie. Maybe it was something else.
Sensing disdainful stares from fellow shoppers, Scott peeled his screaming son off the floor, threw him over his shoulder and quickly walked to the dairy section to get a gallon of milk.
With Tyler still kicking and screaming over his shoulder, Scott paid for the milk and rushed outside. As he put his son into the car, Scott knew he wouldn't be taking Tyler back to the grocery store.
Scott and his wife, Ashley, had concerns that something wasn't right. Previous errands had been nightmares as well, but keeping Tyler home didn't stop the tantrums. It also didn't ease their concerns that he still wasn't talking by age 2 1/2 . And it didn't make sense that he sometimes fell so deep into his own world that his parents worried he was deaf.
Doctors told Scott and Ashley that Tyler was just a late-developing boy. They were told Albert Einstein didn't talk until he was 3. Still, they kept pushing the doctors to look closer.
Finally, in March 2007, Tyler was diagnosed with autism.
"At first, I was skeptical," Scott said. "I didn't want to see anything wrong with our boy. But my wife was saying, 'Hey, while you were at practice or while you were on the road trip, I saw some things that scared me a little bit.'
"It was amazing how Ashley could say early on, 'This is difficult that we're getting this diagnosis, but we can help him a lot. He's a beautiful boy, and we're going to help him have a meaningful, rich life.' For me, that optimism and that faith in Tyler was something that has helped us work as a team to raise him. That's been something huge."
It didn't take long for Scott to start preaching the same message as Ashley, and this Father's Day is clearly a celebration in the Jackson household. It marks the completion of Tyler's first year of therapy, which was so difficult for Tyler in the beginning that he would cry for hours until he fell asleep in the middle of the classroom. It hurt his parents too much to even watch.
Father's Day also marks the culmination of a year of change for Scott, who was placed on injured reserve with the Texans and devoted his free afternoons last fall to attending therapy with Tyler so he could learn how to help his son at home.
After all, Scott's knowledge of autism at the time of his son's diagnosis was what he saw in the 1988 movie Rain Man. He thought of a person who memorized the phone book, and he immediately envisioned taking care of his son for a long time.
A kindred spirit
Texans special-teams coordinator Joe Marciano tried to thwart those concerns as soon as he heard about Tyler. Marciano, a single father, received the same diagnosis six years ago about his adopted son, Joseph, who is 8.
Marciano recently pointed to a Texans practice field at which a handful of kids had played catch during the final day of organized team activities. They waited through the two-hour practice session to get autographs and see their favorite players.
Marciano admitted his son couldn't do that.
"That's not him," Marciano said. "He has a weakness when it comes to the social aspect of life. He can do things other kids his age can't do. He types faster than me. He text messages. He can pick up the phone and call me. You can give him as many numbers as you want, line them up horizontally or vertically, he'll add them all up for you fast. Reading, spelling, math — that's his niche."
Joseph also was placed in intense therapy at age 2, and he slowly began to benefit. At 4, he spoke at the level of an 18-month-old. Now, he speaks at the level of a 5 1/2 -year-old but is thriving in a public school where he is mainstreamed. He has friends and is preparing to enter the third grade after receiving A's and B's on his latest report card.
His interests are similar to those of other 8-year-olds. The movie Kung Fu Panda is his current passion, and he loves to sing its theme song, Kung Fu Fighting.
Such updates from Marciano have comforted Jackson, who was so concerned about getting his son into the right therapy that he struggled to concentrate during OTAs last year.
"We have a lot of meetings, and your mind clearly wanders," Jackson said. "How do you focus when you know your son is at home and if you don't help him immediately he may digress further and sink into a deeper form of autism?"
After a two-month search, the Jacksons settled on a facility. For the past year, Tyler has attended school for more than six hours a day, five days a week. About two or three months into therapy, Tyler said "da-da" for the first time. About three months after that, he started saying phrases.
Tyler still battles issues unique to autism, but he has reached the major milestones for a typical child his age.
"When he said, 'Daddy, I love you,' it was unbelievable for me," Scott said. "Once he learned how to use words as sort of tools, that was the biggest breakthrough. Because before, he'd just scream, and we didn't know what he was screaming for. Now he says, 'I want milk.' Or, 'My pants are wet.' Or, 'I want to go for a bike ride.' That was what was bothering him before. He'd just sit here and scream about who knows what."
Special parenting required
Joseph Marciano's tantrums have decreased from 20 minutes to sometimes just five seconds. The head banging, hitting, punching and biting that used to accompany each screaming session also have subsided. Joseph now often scuffs his feet on the ground and pouts, a reaction Marciano realizes is similar to that of a typical 8-year-old.
"His issues aren't academics," Marciano said. "His issues are always going to be social. He's gotten a lot better. I don't think he's ever going to be the life of the party. But he just can't be disruptive when he doesn't get what he wants or his needs aren't met or they change the routine."
Since Joseph's diagnosis, Marciano has become a spokesman for Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of autism and funding research into its causes and treatments. He has received hundreds of letters and e-mails from parents of autistic children, and he replies to all of them. Some of the parents he has met. Through it all, he has learned it takes a special parent to raise an autistic child.
Watching Scott Jackson up close, Marciano said Tyler is "absolutely" lucky to have the father he does.
"I can honestly say I've seen a commitment from Scott," Marciano said. "He asks all the right questions. He's going out and seeking all of the right resources. Plus, he's gone to another level than I have, and he's gone and gotten outside help to help him. He's doing all the right things and taken all the right steps."
It took some time to adjust initially. Tyler was always in the 99 percentile in the growth charts, and Scott got it into his mind that his son was going to follow in his daddy's footsteps.
But Scott has realized his dreams of Tyler someday donning an NFL uniform are unlikely.
The biggest battles Tyler will face each day will be in his mind rather than on the football field.
But as Ashley watches Tyler and Scott together on a day-to-day basis, she knows the similarities will still be there.
"Scott is a good football player, but he's good at a lot of other things," Ashley said. "He's smart. He's talented. He's very kind. And he's just very witty. These are talents Tyler can develop that can make him a lot like his dad. He doesn't have to be a football player to be like his dad or to be successful. There are a lot of other things that he can do to succeed to make us just as proud."
Watching Tyler grow
Scott plans to be there every step of the way for Tyler and his other sons. The Jacksons have a 14-month-old, Joel, and another son due July 2.
Even last August when he was in the midst of a training camp critical for his career, Scott opted not to stay at the team hotel just a few blocks from the Texans' workout facility. Instead, he drove home 30 minutes each night just to offer his support, even though the boys were sleeping when he arrived and not yet awake when he left in the mornings.
When he returns home from practices these days, Scott often sheds his workout clothes for swim trunks, takes his boys outside and hooks up the sprinkler, coming up with an educational game to play with Tyler as they run through the water. Other days, he totes them to their local park. An hour later, Ashley watches them walk back. Scott has both boys in tow, and his shirt is drenched with sweat.
"It was huge for me to realize it's not about him being a football star," said Scott, a member of Athletes Against Autism. "Right now, he's on the soccer team. He just runs around smiling. He never really kicks the soccer ball. But to me, it's priceless to see him out there just having fun.
"All day I sit there and watch film and am told of all the different little problems with footwork and handwork and how we need to run this play perfectly — which is my profession, and I love it. But this has given me a chance to look and see the beauty of just seeing someone enjoy themselves. He just loves being out there and doing things.
"You see these kids and all of the amazing things they could do. It's really broadened my idea what each person is capable of doing, despite handicaps or developmental delays or whatever they might be struggling with. They have unbelievable potential. And if we just support them, amazing things happen."

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