Living With Autism: Two Atlanta Families Share Joys and Challenges
Chances are you know a family that has a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Alisha Hester has two sons with an autism diagnosis. Debbi Scarborough and her husband Matthew, founders of Cumberland Academy, have an adult son on the spectrum, and a neurotypical son.
Hester is dealing with the day-to-day challenges of autism and Debbie Scarborough is, in a sense, too – she is headmaster at the academy, which has grown from one student with autism, their son, in 2007 to 100 students today.
We also spoke with the author of “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain.”
The Hester Family
Hester’s older son, Django, 9, is in an inclusive third-grade class in Winnona Park Elementary, and his brother, Donovan, 6, is in kindergarten. Hester moved from Alpharetta to Decatur to get her sons into Decatur schools.
She calls Django her “light switch kid,” a behavior that was one of her first clues he wasn’t a neurotypical kid. For 10 minutes as a toddler he might be engaged in serious play with peek-a-boo and toys, then like someone flipping a light switch, he’d suddenly lose interest and zone out despite her efforts to keep his attention.
“When he was younger, I’d tell people he has autism,” Hester says, “but now I don’t want to say that. He’s different and we’ve talked about how he is different, and I want him to own it, to be proud of it.”
Django struggles with writing and math, because he loses his train of thought, but he’s doing much better in school this year. He went through a phase of screaming and punching public meltdowns when he was younger. He is sensitive to sounds and still might burst out screaming when sensory input becomes too much for him.
Donovan’s symptoms are milder – he flaps his hands when he’s happy or excited, makes funny facial expressions and sometimes has sensory sensitivity to sounds and touch, like a scratchy clothing tag.
What would Hester like parents of neurotypical kids to know about her sons?
“I wish everyone would know that no matter a child’s disability, we’re all just people,” she says. “Having autism is just part of who they are and I wouldn’t change that.”
The Scarborough Family
The Scarboroughs’ autistic son, Steven, is now 23; his brother Sam is a sophomore at the University of Georgia.
Steven, who has high-functioning Asperger’s, attended public school, but by fourth grade he was struggling. The Scarboroughs looked into private schools, but “no one was taking kids with autism,” Debbi Scarborough says.
They founded the academy for fourth through 12th grades, hired certified teachers and staff, and aimed to create “a typical school environment for untypical kids.” Many of the current students, like Steven, struggle with sensory issues to sound and touch and need speech and physical therapy.
Steven learned mechanics at Chattahoochee Tech and now is pursuing his passion for cars working as a mechanic and collision specialist. He drives a bright yellow convertible. Sam is kinder and more understanding young man because of his brother, his mom says.
“Look at Steven … there’s a lot of hope for our kids,” she says. “These kids are amazing. As parents, we all have to push them … not try to coddle them, not try to change who they are but to embrace it and help them live in our world.”
– Amanda Miller Allen