It's been a year of progress for local family in battle against autism

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April is Autism Awareness Month

By Geoff Hamill



A year ago, he didn’t speak, and he didn’t interact with others. Life for Jesse McClain, a 3-year-old with autism, was a difficult place. He would sit by himself and play quietly, never interacting with other children.
Today, Jesse has made strides that have his family and others who know him amazed at the progress in his life.
“Last year, his verbal skills just took off around May,” Melody McClain, Jesse’s mother, said. “He started saying one word at a time, and now he’s starting to talk in sentences and even noticing concepts.”
Melody said Jesse now understands things like the difference in big and small, and he is associating things that go together, like cakes go along with birthdays.

Melody and her husband, Rusty, noticed when Jesse turned 2 years old that he was not doing things children his age were doing. She said he didn’t wave, and he ignored people and had no interaction. They took Jesse to the Weisskopf Child Education Center in the University of Louisville’s Department of Pediatrics, and Jesse was diagnosed with autism.
The McClains decided they would not sit by and watch, but instead put up a fight against autism, and it’s a fight they now feel they are winning as Jesse continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
“He has started playing with his peers, and now when he gets up in the morning, he wants to go to school to play with his friends,” Melody said. Jesse, who celebrated his fourth birthday this past Christmas, is in his first year of preschool at North Washington Elementary in Willisburg. Melody said he has gone to the school on a limited basis before this year to work with speech therapists there, but he is now enrolled as a student, and she sees the benefits.
“The school has been very instrumental this past year. That’s what has helped bring him out of his shell,” Melody added. “Jesse is now in his first of two years of preschool, and he can already count to 100, he knows his ABCs, and he can name the planets. He’s doing beautifully.”
Like most children with autism, she said Jesse has patterns that he follows, and he is set in his ways. He wants things to go the way he is accustomed to them going. Changes in patterns of activities can often be a big challenge for a child with autism, but for Jesse, the staff members at North Washington who work with him have helped him learn to do some things differently, and Melody said she is excited that he is learning to deal with changes.
“One day he was dropping grapes at lunch. The teacher made a book and she developed a story and started modeling for Jesse, to show him that if you drop something, it goes in the trash. Now he knows that if he drops something he needs to throw it in the trash, and he does that here at home.”
Stacey Chevalier is Jesse’s preschool teacher, and she said she met the boy and his mom when she first took him to North Washington. She was out of the classroom earlier this year for maternity leave, and has only had the chance to work with Jesse as the school year has passed, but she said he is learning every day.
“Until now, Jesse wasn’t able to stay on his spot. He wanted to explore the room.,” Stacey said. “Now he’s able to sit on his spot and attend just like every other child. It makes me tear up. Right now, you could walk into my classroom and not see him. He’s on that rug like every other child. We’ve found ourselves thinking, ‘Where’s Jesse?’ That means he’s in there playing like every other child and interacting. He’s really blossomed in the last two months.”
Stacey added that Jesse once needed adult support, but he now goes through the lunch line at school, holding his own tray, and sits with the other kids rather than an adult.
“He’s just the neatest kid. He’s moving through the developmental milestones so quickly now,” Stacey said. “He’s a kid that I could get completely engrossed in, and I could just watch him during play. I told his mother I wish I could get inside his brain and see what he’s thinking.”
Recently, while watching him play, Stacey noticed how Jesse was analyzing the situation as he started to climb a climbing wall on the playground.
“It was kind of hard, and he was looking at it. Before he did it, he would pick up his foot and turn it how it would have gone into that groove. It was like he was making a visual plan in his brain. Before he did it, he visually planned how his foot would be turned for each step,” Stacey recalled.
Another person who has seen Jesse make great progress is his aid, Gala Hollon, who works with him at North Washington. She described him as “amazing.”
“Jesse is a remarkable little boy.  I had the pleasure of starting to work with him in September,” she said. “When he started preschool, sign language was a big part of his routine, and now he has started to communicate in complete sentences. He now sits in the midst of his class at lunch to talk to his friends - something he  was unable to do that at the beginning of the school year. Every day he seems to be learning and absorbing  everything like a sponge.  He is beginning to socialize with the other students and is truly a part of the class.”
Gala was also quick to point out that all of the dedicated people in Jesse’s life have made the differences she now sees.
“In my opinion Jesse is where he is at the this time because of the tremendous support and dedication to him at home and the dedicated work of his preschool teacher, therapists and staff at North. In both places I feel he is given all the tools and support needed to succeed and move forward in his life. It is truly amazing in my view where Jesse is at this point.
With all of Jesse’s progress, Melody said there are still challenges, and he still shows symptoms of his autism at times. She continues to give him injections of Methyl B-12, and she credits those injections with much of the difference in Jesse’s autism.
“We are continuing with his biomedical treatments, and with the medication, he’s a different child. We still have issues to work with him on, but I’m so tickled with how he’s doing academically,” she said. “Two years ago, they didn’t think he could learn. We took him to speech therapy four days a week, and they were at the point they were ready to give up. He has went from that to being brilliant. We still work a lot, about four hours a day, on simple things like playing turn-taking games, doing puzzles and other interaction, and the more we do it, the better he gets. Some people may look at me sometimes like I’m kinda like a drill sergeant, but look where he’s at now.”
The McClains recently got a new helper to work with Jesse, and as soon as he’s trained, Melody thinks he will be even more helpful. They recently got Hershey, a chocolate Labrador Retriever, who will be an autism service dog to work with Jesse. Hershey is just 12 weeks old, and he will start training in May. Melody said once he is trained, Hershey will be able to signal things to the family, such as the possibility of a seizure. He will also be able to alert them if Jesse has something in his mouth that could be a choking hazard. The dogs are also known to put children at ease at traumatic times such as doctor visits.
“Labs are the number one autism service dog,” Melody said. “As a service dog, Hershey will play a big key in that for Jesse. He already makes a difference if we’re just going for a ride down the road. Having Hershey along helps him.”
Melody plans to have Hershey with her and Jesse at the upcoming autism walk, which takes place from 1-4 p.m. on April 16 at Idle Hour Park.