FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Four-year-old Dawson Stock loves music and instruments; his mother says he is obsessed with the violin. He knows the alphabet forward and backward and is ready to read. Dawson is teaching himself the sign-language alphabet. He knows his numbers and how to add. Dawson is a high-functioning child.
This was not always the case. In the fall of 2014, Dawson’s parents had noticed something was off.
“Dawson would not answer to his name and eye contact was rare,” said Jennifer Stock, Dawson’s mother. “He had (little) to no interest in properly interacting with children his own age and (he was) extremely hyper.”
According to his mother, Dawson would engage in very little verbal communication.
“He babbled at an age he should have been talking in fragmented sentences,” she said. “After having three older children, I had learned many techniques to use when my kids misbehaved — time out, counting or a disapproving look —however, none of those worked with Dawson. He just didn’t understand.
“Having my older boys helped me see sooner that Dawson needed special help.”
Dawson’s parents decided to schedule a visit with a behavioral health nurse practitioner and took Dawson to Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia for an examination. Just weeks before his third birthday, Dawson was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism, a general term for autism spectrum disorder, is a developmental disorder which can affect social, emotional and communication skills.
Early detection and treatment is critical to the care of children with autism, according to Lt. Col. (Dr.) Eric Flake, the director of the Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. The reason why the greatest emphasis is placed on identifying autism in children as early as possible is to begin teaching children the benefits of healthy social communication and to avoid the adverse consequences of social avoidant behaviors.
As soon as Dawson was diagnosed, he was prescribed a combination of occupational therapy, speech therapy and applied behavior analysis.
“If there is one person in this world who has been the most amazing, it was our behavioral nurse practitioner, Dr. Jennifer Hensley,” said Maj. Michael Stock, Dawson’s father. “She is one of the greatest humans on earth. She diagnosed Dawson … and took him in like one of her own kids.”
Diagnosed on a Tuesday in October 2014, Dawson was actively engaged in occupational therapy by the following week.
Enrollment in speech therapy and ABA followed. Once Dawson was fully enrolled in all three therapies, his regimen consisted of ABA in-home for two hours a day, five days a week; speech therapy for 50 minutes, one day a week; and 50 minutes of occupational therapy, two days a week.
Research estimates the cost of care for a person with autism is between $1.4 million and $2.4 million across a lifespan. In the civilian sector, the average cost of a one-hour session of therapy is $90. To cover speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, the cost after insurance is approximately $29,000 annually.
Conversely, TRICARE covers the cost of services such as occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy. For eligible beneficiaries, ABA is covered under the TRICARE Comprehensive Autism Care Demonstration.
While therapy co-pay amounts vary based on the TRICARE plan selected, the annual cost of autism-related therapy services can amount to approximately $600 after insurance.
ABA addresses social development and behavioral issues. ABA services focus on how learning takes place and applies techniques and principles to increase useful behaviors and decrease potentially harmful behaviors, or those which could interfere with learning. For a young child, this could involve learning how to communicate to avoid throwing toys — which is not done with any malice, but as a means of communicating.
“Dawson has the biggest smile … the biggest heart,” said Jennifer Stock. “He’s so pure … he’s missing any meanness. Everything he does is pure, sweet and from the heart.”
Applied behavior analysis uses behavior modification principles and can help with development of skills such as speech and self-help. Since beginning ABA therapy, Dawson has grown and developed in leaps and bounds, but there is still a long road ahead, according to his parents.
“Children with autism have a hard time connecting with other people,” Michael said. “They don’t look you in the eyes. However, now you see Dawson looks you in the eyes, interacts, and it is apparent he is making that intentional effort to have a physical and emotional interaction.”
Dawson is also becoming well-versed in nursery rhymes. “For him to recognize a nursery rhyme and be able to sing it is a great accomplishment,” his mother said. “When he sees a star, or hears ‘twinkle, twinkle,’ … he will say, ‘like a diamond in the sky.’”
Since Dawson’s diagnosis in 2014, the Stocks have gone through a permanent change of station to Fort Hood, Texas. “It was the right move for our family,” Michael said. “We had family in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio. It was critical for our kids to be around family. Fort Hood was the only base that made sense for us.”
While Dawson is too young for enrollment in elementary school, his parents have already begun thinking about his future education and plan to speak with a counselor.
“Dawson’s education is something huge that I think about often. I don’t want him to be isolated. I want him to be integrated with the other children,” said Jennifer Stock. “We are hoping to have some type of normalcy. For that reason, we don’t want to move. We are hoping to stay at Fort Hood for as long as we can.”
The Air Force Exceptional Family Member Program provides support for families with a member who has special needs. For military sponsors with a special needs family member, enrollment in the program is mandatory.
The EFMP helps to ensure that families with special needs children are assigned to locations which can support the medical and educational needs of those children. Families preparing for a permanent change of station should get in touch with the local EFMP office preferably six months ahead of their move. It is critical that families have TRICARE insurance and the Extended Care Health Option transferred to their new duty location.
For parents whose children are diagnosed with autism, the Stocks shared some advice.
“Breathe, it will be OK,” said Jennifer Stock. “Take a deep breath and look into ABA.”
Michael talked about the importance of developing a social network. “We have very good friends whose kids have autism. If not for reaching out to them, we wouldn’t have fully understood how to navigate through it … only experience teaches you.”
The Stocks credited as a great source of support, the experience of other parents whose children had also been diagnosed with autism.
“I called my buddy as soon as we first learned about what was going on with Dawson,” Michael said. “He gave me a pep talk, told me what would happen, and literally gave me a mental checklist of what to do.
“We did everything on the list and it all worked out.”