Look, Bridger!" Nancy Mahlum exclaimed. "Look at Mommy make the car go! Vroom! Vroom!" It was a moment that would have delighted most three-year-olds. But like every other time Nancy played with her little boy, Bridger just stared into space. "Children like this rarely improve," doctors had told her. Yet Nancy couldn't bring herself to just give up. "There must be some way to reach you, Bridger," she said, blinking back tears. Somehow, I'll find away...
It seemed like just yesterday that she held Bridger for the first time, her husband Doug looking on proudly. Before she knew it, he was standing in his crib each morning, happily babbling "Mama."
But after his second birthday, about the time Nancy discovered she was expecting again, she and Doug began to notice a change in Bridger. Gazing into space, he often didn't notice when Nancy called his name. And when his daddy tried to play, with him, he turned away Almost overnight, Bridger grew irritable and whiny flying into tantrums or banging his head on the floor if he couldn't find a favorite toy "Don't worry" the pediatrician said. "He's fine." But when Nancy's friend Cindy, who worked with disabled children, suggested she have Bridger evaluated, Nancy set up an appointment. "He doesn't respond to our voices or hug us back," Nancy told the psychologist at a child development center. "He was always such a happy child," she added, her voice trembling. "But lately..." "I'm sorry," a doctor finally diagnosed Bridger "Your son has autism-a severe developmental disorder." No! Nancy wanted to cry, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out. She remembered haunting images from a show she'd seen on autism-children spinning endlessly, oblivious to the world around them. Children living in their own worlds. Just like Bridger. Nancy listened numbly as the doctor explained that Bridger would probably never learn to read or write or even learn to talk "He may always be in his own world, unable to live a normal life."
Back home, tears choked Nancy as she looked out the window and saw little ones riding their tricycles. What kind of future will my boy have? she anguished. Not much we can do the doctors words echoed in her mind. And yet, Nancy thought, inside he's still the same little boy I'll always love. There must be some way to reach him! The next day, Nancy quit her job in personnel to spend all her time with Bridger and search for answers. Pouring over books and journals, and calling experts, Nancy left no stone unturned. But over and over, she heard the same thing-almost 100% of children with autism as severe as Bridger's were dependent on others their whole lives. She felt hopeless-until her friend Cindy dropped by... "I just read a book about a program called Son-Rise!" she said. "It's about parents who designed a program to reach their autistic son-and today he's a college graduate!"
That night, Nancy stayed up all night devouring every page of that book. For the first time in months, her heart was filled with hope. "This could be the answer we've been praying for," she excitedly told Doug.
Soon the family was traveling to Massachusetts for a training program at the Option Institute. "If you communicate with Bridger on his level, it's possible to draw him out," their teachers explained. The program had helped hundreds of autistic children live normal lives-helping them to play and talk and go to school and learn like any other children. 'The first step is show Bridger that you accept him as he is," the teacher said during the first session. So instead of trying to get him to play her way, when Bridger sat mesmerized, spinning the wheels of a toy car, Nancy picked up a toy truck and spun the wheels herself. 'This is cool!" she said as she watched the grooves making patterns as they moved. So this is what his world looks like, she thought. And to her surprise, he looked at her and his new baby brother Colter.
More and more often, as they imitated his every move, Bridger rewarded them with smiles, or sometimes even offered them his toys. But Nancy didn't realize just how much he had progressed until one day after nearly a year of therapy Bridger walked up to Nancy and spontaneously announced, "I love you, Mommy!" I never thought I'd hear those words! she thought, a tiny sob catching in her throat. And as she threw her arms around Bridger, another miracle happened. After years of pulling back or going limp whenever she tried to hug him, this time she felt arms wrap around her and squeeze. Bridger was hugging her back! And the miracles were just beginning.
Soon Bridger was greeting Daddy with hugs when he came home. And tears of joy filled Nancy's eyes as she watched Bridger showing his brother how to play trucks. 'You go Vroom, Vroom!" he roared. Incredibly when it was time for Bridger to start kindergarten, he tested normal in all areas. And best of all, like any other boy he loved it! Two years later, the boy who doctors predicted would never lead a normal life is a happy healthy eight year-old. And when Bridger cuddles with his mom just to talk, her heart swells with joy These are the times she realizes the most vividly what a precious gift she's been given. "When Bridger was diagnosed with autism, I thought it was the end of the world," Nancy says. "But now I know it was just the beginning."