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Wishers learn life lessons from autistic son

The Delphos Herald

20 April 2009

MIDDLE POINT ­— Nearly seven years ago, Toni and Max Wisher brought home their first child. For the first year, their smiling baby boy was much like any average little one. However, a series of infections led to a medical diagnosis that turned the young family’s life “on its ear.”

Zachary, now 6 years old, has autism — a spectrum disorder characterized by a set of behaviors wide-ranging in scope. These include a lack of verbal skills, social skills, eye contact, tantrums and more. The severity can vary greatly from one person to another, as can the ability to function.

In Zachary’s case, there were no signs of the disorder at birth and the path toward diagnosis was difficult. However, once the Wisher’s did know what they were dealing with, they began to move forward.

“Zachary showed none of the physical signs right away. He was engaging — he looked at us, imitated us, he responded to sounds and to his name. Then, when he was 1, he started getting ear infections; there was a series of six or seven that year. So, we had him on constant antibiotics and as soon as he started on them, he started getting very agitated and kind of lethargic,” she said.

“He was 18-months old when his sister was born and at that point, he started the tantrums. We were new at this and had nothing to compare things to, so we just thought it was a sibling rivalry. Later that year, his eye contact drastically diminished. Up until that point, we weren’t in fear yet — until he was 2. That’s when we knew something was really wrong.”

Not knowing what was wrong with their son was its own challenge. However, doctors were often pessimistic and this made things more difficult.

“When he was 2, his behavior really changed. We went from doctor to doctor and test to test just to rule things out. At one point, they even thought he was deaf and did more tests to prove he can hear. We would be feeling really good about the things we were doing with him, then we’d see some doctor who told us everything was hopeless,” she said. “Max and I got to the point where we decided to not trust in doctors unless they’re the parent of an autistic child. We decided that we love Zachary more and will do more for him than anyone, so we took control and kept looking for the right treatment options.”

The Wishers continued searching and came across a book that referred to a movie about autism produced in the 1970s. They watched the film and heard of the Autism Treatment Center of America, located in Massachusetts. The couple traveled there for training and credit the center for giving them the tools they need to parent a special-needs child.

“When we found the center, we were paying $750 every two weeks for 22 hours of therapy for Zachary in Fort Wayne. We had enough money for a little more therapy or the trip. We were nearly out of funds when we enrolled in the Sonrise Program, which taught us how to direct his therapy. The center also referred us to the doctor we now take Zachary to in Columbus,” she said.

Wisher acknowledges the program is considered controversial by some in the medical community. However, she remains undeterred in her commitment to her son and that he can one day recover from autism.

“It’s controversial because it was started by parents who recovered their children and their children now teach parents how to recover their children. We were around people who were optimistic; who weren’t playing the victim and asking ‘why me?’ We learned a lot from them — how to parent him and how to create a positive environment for him in light of his particular needs. We also learned about diet. No medical study has been done to show the affects of diet on autism but it is well-known in the autism community that diet is a huge factor. Doctors focus on the behaviors but, for whatever reason, those are things they feel they need,” she said.

By having a special-needs child, the couple has adopted a parenting style that places more emphasis on being a witness, than a controlling agent. She says this begins with respecting the differences between average persons and those like her son.

“We know of a girl who kept flapping her arms at the side of her head. Everybody tried to get her to stop the behavior but as it turned out, she was having trouble with her peripheral vision and they didn’t know it until later. By flapping her arms, she was stimulating her eyes. Zachary likes to tear paper and drop it but he’s not looking directly at it — he’s using his peripheral vision and watching how the light changes and how the paper turns in the air on the way down,” she said.

Wisher says she has learned more through her son then anyone else just be watching him.

“Zachary lives in the moment and is just fascinated with everything he discovers. There is nothing that gets by him; there is not one rain drop on the window that he doesn’t see. He not only stops to smell the roses — he inspects every petal and every thorn on the stem. If more people were like that, they might enjoy life more,” she said.

From parenting Zachary, Wisher has also learned lessons that transcend her family’s circumstance.

“With some of Zachary’s behavior, we just join him in it instead of trying to make him stop or do something differently. Most of learning how to parent him has had more to do with us than with him. We are constantly finding out that we need to change a belief about this thing or that thing. Two months ago, I thought he needed my help to put his clothes on; I had to change my belief and my behavior. I had to back off and let him do it. Because I did that, he now gets dressed just fine on his own and it doesn’t matter if his shirt is on backwards — it’s perfect. Whenever he does something, before we focus on why he did it or why he did it a certain way, we just say ‘look how wonderful he is’,” she said.