When you are the parent of a child with special needs, sometimes you just need to learn to see the world a little differently.
At least that’s what Mid-States Concrete Accounting Manager Bob MacDougall has learned. MacDougall, who has been with Mid-States since April 2017, is the father to three wonderful children - Madden, Grayson and Bowen - two of which have special needs.
It all started with MacDougall’s oldest son, Madden. When Madden was about two-and-a-half years old, MacDougall and his wife, Ereka, noticed some speech and development delays. With early intervention programs, the MacDougalls got Madden the help of both an occupational therapist and speech therapist. While Madden, now eight, still receives speech therapy, thrives on a schedule, and is extremely shy, he is doing quite well with the help the family has received.
While the family was caring for Madden’s needs, they had a second son, Grayson. When Grayson was about six- to eight-months old, the two noticed he was a quiet baby, but didn’t think much of it at the time. Grayson reached the toddler ages and still wasn’t really talking. Knowing kids develop differently and again, maybe Grayson was just a quiet kid, the couple weren’t completely alarmed, but did keep an eye on it. Then, when they noticed Grayson was extremely sensitive to loud noises and would seek out sensory stimulation though peripheral movement such as lining up his cars along the table and running past them while looking at them out of his peripheral, and watching go-cart races at the race track with his head turned and looking out his peripheral as well, the couple knew they needed to get him evaluated.
Unfortunately Grayson’s signs of Autism were not recognized until it was too late for early intervention programs. However he was evaluated in time to qualify for preschool programs at Simon Elementary School in Winnebago, Ill., the MacDougall’s hometown. Grayson began receiving speech and occupational therapies at Simon as well as at SwedishAmerican Pediatric Therapy. In addition to his therapy services, Grayson also has an Autism service dog named Jeb. Jeb is an 11-month-old black lab who is trained to help Grayson in times of sensory needs such as lapping, which is where Jeb will lay across Grayson’s legs to provide body pressure which helps Grayson regulate during emotionally difficult moments. All Grayson has to do is sit down and Jeb will come lay across his legs. Jeb also provides a service of safety in that Grayson can be tethered to Jeb while out in public and busy places. Jeb is trained to stay by Grayson’s parents’ side and serve as an anchor to keep Grayson from running off. Jeb has also helped Grayson in ways that the MacDougalls have noticed improvements in his speech, gained independence and self-regulation. Jeb will attend school with Grayson this fall to ensure his days run smoothly.
Both MacDougall and his wife have done a considerable amount of research into autism, learning to see the world through Grayson’s eyes, and are staunch advocates of autism awareness, though they are aiming for more than just awareness.
“It’s not just awareness,” MacDougall said. “You want to push the understanding.”
For example, at times, Grayson has a hard time regulating his emotions and the way his senses make his brain feel. So, if Grayson is having a tough time at the grocery store, to an outsider who isn’t familiar with Autism, it can just look like a kid having a tantrum and being a brat. But, for someone who understands Autism, they know Grayson is just having a hard time in that moment and might need some help from mom or dad with regulating his emotions.
“It took us a long time… to be able to recognize how to parent and when to parent to help him regulate and get him what he needs and to know when he’s just being a kid,” MacDougall said.
Parenting a child with Autism has its challenges, and it can be exhausting, but the MacDougalls still make time for advocacy through networking and attending fundraisers for Autism research and awareness. In fact, a friend of MacDougall’s wife recently started the non-profit The Superhero Center for Autism. The center will eventually feature a building in Rockford where kids with special needs can just “be safe, be empowered, be supported, and be themselves.” The center will offer groups, classes, outings and a sensory gym.
A passion of MacDougall’s wife is focusing on the life skills elements for children with Autism and has made that her focus in raising two children with special needs.
“At the end of the day, we want Grayson, at the bare minimum, to do the basic essentials and find that niche out in society where he can go work,” MacDougall said. “… These kids are very detail-oriented, very thorough, you just have to know how to tap in to that.”
So, what does any parent of a child with autism want others to know?
“Just be compassionate and try to understand what they’re going through,” MacDougall said.
To learn more, check out this animated explanation of Autism: https://youtu.be/6fy7gUIp8Ms.