Big numbers, bright colors: a mom’s journey with her autistic son
Mar 30, 2017 11:53AM
By Travis Barton
Dustin and Sara Bradford take a photo with a laughing DJ. (Bradford family)
Those were the first words written by DJ Bradford when he was 2. Now the 7-year-old boy writes words like quintillion, understands what googolplexian means and names the hue, saturation and luminosity of the color burgundy. He also has autism.
As April commemorates Autism Awareness Month, West Valley resident Sara Bradford, DJ’s mother, reflected on the family’s journey from discovering he had autism at 16-months-old to his ability at 7 to read and understand on a high school level. DJ also has a photographic and auditory memory.
“It’s nothing I’ve ever encountered or dreamed of having,” Sara said of her son’s ability. “It’s just truly amazing, he’s got skills that are incredible.”
DJ started with writing purple turtle, but his academic abilities have increased since he wrote those two words in chalk in front of their house. And it is all self-taught.
At age 3, he wrote ‘Missoula, Montana’ in cursive and block letters two weeks after his grandmother wore a T-shirt bearing those words.
He’s read his teenage sister’s algebra book. He was seen doing binary code and programming on his tablet.
He can count to five in German, Chinese, French and will say ‘this is my mom’ in Russian. That’s in addition to the words in English, Spanish, Italian and Polish that he can read, understand and say.
One day he asked his mom what color her lipstick was. She replied it was burgundy, he then told her what the hue, saturation and luminosity of burgundy was. He loves colors.
In preschool, he wrote supercalifragilisticexpialidocious for his teachers to see.
The periodic table of elements, he’s memorized it. States, capitals, countries? Not only does he know them all, but he can draw the country’s flag, like the Chinese flag he put on a Christmas tree ornament.
“He’s going to get me my master’s, and I don’t even have my bachelor’s,” Sara joked.
Though DJ was reading words at six months old, it didn’t make hearing the diagnosis of autism any easier for his parents.
“He was reading everything. We were excited and telling the pediatrician and he was like ‘well he should be talking, saying words,’” Sara said, adding DJ had no sense of fear or danger.
For Sara, a paralegal and massage therapist, and her husband, Dustin, they had plans of grandeur for their first child together.
“When we found out, obviously it was devastating for both of us…everything was kind of cut. You have to accept your expectations are no longer, and it’s kind of soul crushing,” she said.
Sara was pregnant with their second child when they learned of the diagnosis. “It was really scary, like how did this happen, did I drink too much of something? Or is it just this strange (thing) of you don’t know how it happens.”
They finally reached a place, she said, where they accepted what happened and that they needed to help him.
“Helping find out what happened to him doesn’t help him. It just makes us worry, and it’s like it’s harder to accept him when you’re trying to change him and you’re trying to figure out a way to make him different,” Sara said.
From the diagnosis to now, they face difficulties in behaviors. Early on he would constantly flap his arms, spin in circles and hum.
“He wouldn’t look at people, he didn’t care about anyone. Just flapped his arms and spun in circles,” Sara said.
Knowing when to use the bathroom is still problematic so pull-ups are a commonly bought item at the store, a challenging place for DJ. Stores are overwhelming for DJ, who loves to read and wants to read all the labels and prices. Sara said he’ll throw himself on the ground and she will drag him kicking and screaming.
She said he struggles when little things go wrong, like if he drops a cup of water then his world revolves around how he “spoiled his water” or if the battery on his tablet dies. He’ll throw the electronic device, scream, bite himself or hit others. Aggressive behaviors she tries to redirect with a high-five. His inability to respond to instances of misfortune in a manner that is socially acceptable is what stresses out Sara.
“Those things really scare me like what’s going to happen in the future when he’s out there and can’t get his seat belt on correctly and he freaks out and people don’t understand,” she said.
At 3, he still wasn’t speaking. Sara came across a behavioral program that suggested taking dairy and gluten out of DJ’s diet. Her research said milk contains casein and gluten contains a wheat protein. Both of which may cause swelling in the brain and stomach.
In his first week without dairy, he said 50 words.
“Finally, we were hearing his voice and it was just amazing,” Sara said. He now drinks almond milk and is completely gluten-free.
With DJ’s advanced knowledge, school has been tricky. At 2-years-old, the family got him involved with DDI Vantage, an early intervention non-profit that helps create goals and guidelines for children with autism.
From there he moved into the Autism Support Services: Education, Research and Training (ASSERT) program throughout preschool.
But when came the second day of first grade at a new school, things changed.
Placed in a second and third grade class with other children with special needs, he wandered off. He left the lunch room and headed toward a busy road.
“It was pretty scary,” Sara recalled. Though nothing bad happened, DJ’s parents decided to take their son out of school.
That was last fall. DJ is now being homeschooled by his mom every afternoon since October. Though he’s demonstrated a desire to go back to school, Sara said it works for now, until they can accommodate sending him to a school for children with autism.
The home school program they’re following allows DJ to test out of certain units making the process quicker. He finished the first grade in four months and is now in second grade.
“I think at this point if I can do two grades a year, I’ll be able to catch up to where he’s really at,” said Sara, a former preschool teacher. She said she has a great daily curriculum to follow.
He spends two hours in the morning every weekday working with Applied Behavior Analysis therapists who work with his behavior, they’re currently developing a program to help with aggressive behavior.
“I just kind of let them do their thing which is hard for a mom but they’re doing great,” Sara said.
Through the difficult moments over the years, the family—consisting of Sara, Dustin, teenage Sydnie and 5-year-old Anna—has enjoyed flashes of happiness.
Whether it was DJ warmly embracing the return of his older sister—one of the few people Sara can trust him with—using the bathroom properly or him uttering three simple words, I love you.
“We are just so thankful there are those moments…these little tiny things, when they happen, are like the biggest gifts ever. It’s overwhelming, emotional,” Sara said and choked back her tears.
One such instance happened at Christmas, when DJ opened a present, looked up and said ‘thank you.’
“He had never shown us that he was thankful,” Sara said. “We didn’t even know he understood that so it was kind of neat to see like, wow, he’s more normal than not sometimes and I forget that cause he’s so unique. Going to the bathroom and the toilet, who would celebrate that? We do because it never happens.”
Like any parent, Sara worries about what the future holds for DJ. If he can have an independent life and not have to live with a family member to care for him.
She wants him to have friends. Sara said he had a friend in preschool, but he doesn’t have any friends right now, adding that he’s demonstrated no desire to have friends.
He loves his sisters, Sara said, and the family enjoys a good relationship with another family of similarly aged children.
“I want him to be healthy and have what he needs… I want him to make a friend. I would love to see him have a conversation with someone someday,” Sara said of her hopes for her intelligent boy who just five years ago was writing “purple turtle” on a sidewalk.
“I would say we just want him to be happy,” she said.
A poem written for DJ by his mother.
I wonder what he’s thinking
he never said a word
his eyes are all I had
his voice was never heard
but through his many actions
his gentle, warm embrace
he let me know he loved me
I could see it in his face
and now the years have gone and passed
a voice he now has gained
to tell us of the things he loves
to tell us of his pain
through riddles of his own design
or cries of helpless sorrow
we help him carry and move along
we see him though tomorrow
for Autism may be in his brain
but love is in his heart
this mother's love will never die
whether near or far apart
for as your path continues,
you'll always be to me
my silent boy with talking eyes
and a heart full of wonder and glee.