Kelly and Brian have a storybook marriage. They met in high school, went off to college and started a relationship even Cinderella would be jealous of. When they found out they would be having their first child, they thought – as most parents do – that their child would be typically developing. Their first instinct that things were not progressing as they should be was at Peyton’s nine-month baby wellness check. The pediatrician mentioned that she was concerned that he wasn’t making sounds. Kelly did not think too much of it, but three months later at the 12-month appointment, the pediatrician suggested Kelly contact The Marcus Autism Center for a diagnosis.
In October 2013, at 14 months old, Peyton was referred to Easter Seals North Georgia’s Babies Can’t Wait program. At the family’s first therapy session, Kelly was overwhelmed. A working mother, who just five months ago thought Peyton was developing on schedule, was now overcome with emotions. “The whole process was still sinking in at this point. I thought all of this was my fault,” Kelly said.
Occupational therapist, Maryse, guided Peyton and Kelly through activities to help Peyton become more focused. Their very first goal was to sit attentively for three minutes. Maryse knew that to accomplish this, they needed playful exercises that released Peyton’s excess energy. They put weights in a child-sized shopping cart. Peyton pushed the cart up and down the hallway.
Another effective activity was collecting weighted balls from around the yard. These activities were not only fun for Peyton, they had meaning. They allowed Peyton’s excess energy to serve a purpose. Thanks to activities like these, Peyton, at three years old, can now sit attentively for 45 minutes at a time.
Occupational and speech therapies were always driven by Peyton and involved the whole family. While Peyton had therapy sessions several times a week, Kelly was able to continue working with him on the days that he did not have therapy.
This constant work sparked significant progress for not just Peyton, but also his family. In just six months, Peyton’s word bank went from one word, “mama”, to 20+ words. In fact, at Christmas 2014 he said, “dada” – a huge milestone for all families. “When Peyton said, ‘dada’, my husband was definitely teary eyed. He has the most infectious smile and it shined that day.”
The long-term goal for the Gattis family is for Peyton to be an independent child in a mainstream classroom with just some extra resources, if needed at all. “We want to look back at this time and say that his autism was just a label for a period of time,” said Kelly.
Kelly, in fact, has a new label. She was so inspired by her experience with Babies Can’t Wait that she joined the team as a Special Instructor. She uses her wealth of developmental knowledge to complement the services the therapists provide. Since she understands the resources and challenges a family has, she helps them build upon their strengths to serve the needs of their child.
While many parents may see this experience as the end, Kelly and Brian saw it as the beginning. They now advocate for early intervention services – the earlier the better. “I want more pediatricians to know about Babies Can’t Wait. Ages zero to three are the most important time to help these children,” Kelly said.