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Autism has risen to 1 in every 68 births in the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine a bond stronger than a grandmother’s love, and that shows when Barbara Dandridge of Urbanna hugs her grandson Trey, who has autism. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

April is National Autism Awareness Month, established by the Autism Society about 25 years ago to promote acceptance of those with autism.

Autism is treatable and an early diagnosis can lead to improved lives for those with autism. The signs of autism can be recognized during a child’s early years, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website has “milestones” to see what a child should be doing at different ages from 2 months to 5 years of age. For example, a one-year-old should be able to stand with support, search for things that they see you hide, say words like Mama and Dada, and learn gestures such as waving.

One behavior associated with autism is the delayed learning of language.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its report concluding the prevalence of autism had risen to one in every 68 births in the United States, almost twice the 2004 rate of one in 125. The rate for boys is almost one in every 54 boys. 

Something was wrong
Barbara Dandridge of Urbanna noticed puzzling behavior in her grandson Trey when he was 3 years old. “I knew something was wrong when he refused to engage in playtime,” she said. “He would sit in the same spot at the edge of the sofa and stare at the television.”

She didn’t know what autism was, but after doing her own research Trey was taken to a specialist at Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughters in Norfolk, where he was diagnosed as being autistic.

“My first thoughts were ‘Why my grandchild?’ ” said Mrs. Dandridge. “But then I said to myself ‘Why not.’ Maybe this is what we were meant to do.”

When we first got Trey his dad was in the military about to go to Iraq, and his mom asked Mrs. Dandridge to care for Trey. Mrs. Dandridge gave it serious thought because at the time her husband Weldon was in Bosnia, she had a full-time job, and Trey needed a sitter. She called her husband and his response was to do what she thought was best for Trey. “We decided to step out on faith because we knew we had to do what was best for Trey and put our wants aside,” said Mrs. Dandridge. “We do not regret one moment for the decision we made.”

Although he lacked communication and social skills, he was striving every day to learn. In June 2015, Trey graduated from Middlesex High School (MHS), but he still attends MHS to learn life skills. However, he does not want to return to MHS next year.

A home
Trey came to live with his grandparents a week before his fourth birthday.

“He is such a blessing to us,” said Mrs. Dandridge, “and we would do it again if we had to. Do we sometimes get frustrated? Yes, we do, but then we think how Trey must be feeling.”

Trey uses a “Dynavox” machine that helps him communicate. “He can talk but it takes him a while to process questions or things in general, and he has problems expressing his wants and needs.” Through the years the Dandridges developed an intuition about Trey’s feelings. “We have to be in tune with his body language, we have to know when he’s not feeling well, and we have to know when he really doesn’t want us in his space,” explained Mrs. Dandridge. “His favorite word is ‘no’ because it is easy to say, but his ‘no’ does not always mean ‘no.’ ”

Challenging rewards
Raising and caring for Trey has given a special purpose to the Dandridges, who have faced challenges, but also have received rewards. “I would be lying if I said having a grandchild with autism hasn’t changed our lives, because it has,” said Mrs. Dandridge. “It has presented many challenges; however, we were up for the challenges. We are very protective of him and we never leave him alone. With that being said, if we have somewhere to go, we either take him with us or send him to his dad’s house, but most of the time he is with us.”

Along the way, Mrs. Dandridge has learned about autism and found resources to help Trey. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet researching schools and programs for people with disabilities, especially autism.” Because of this, Trey now has an applied behavior analysis specialist who comes to see him three times a week.

But unfortunately there are no schools and very little help in the Middlesex area for people with disabilities, said Mrs. Dandridge.

Trey is very fortunate in at least one respect—he has loving grandparents that are doing all they can for him. “We want him to be the best that he can be,” said Mrs. Dandridge.

posted 04.19.2017

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