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“You can really see a difference in him”

Picture of Apollo looking in a mirror, wearing a hat

The first time Iris and Apollo Falconer enrolled their son, AJ, in a Roseville Community Schools program, it proved too much for the boy with autism spectrum disorder to handle.

He would become overwhelmed and melt down, and after five days, the Falconers had to withdraw him from Early Childhood Special Education in Roseville for a similar but more specialized program affiliated with Build Up Michigan at the Macomb Intermediate School District’s Bozymowski Center in nearby Sterling Heights.

Two years later, after a regimen that includes attending Bozymowski’s Autism Impaired Program, receiving applied behavior analysis therapy at the private Gateway Pediatric Therapy center in Warren and maintaining a well-rounded social and recreational schedule with his family, AJ is ready to return to Roseville and enroll in a kindergarten class in fall 2018.

“You can really see a difference in him,” Iris said. “He has progressed a lot in the past two years. He has truly started to show so much. It’s a relief for me as a parent.”

Much of the credit, she says, goes to Build Up Michigan, a Michigan Department of Education program devoted to ensuring that children ages 3 to 5 get the educational support they need to prepare for kindergarten.

Attitude also was key, says Iris, adding that she hopes to serve as an inspiration to other parents of children with autism. “My vision is to get it out there to families to tell them that an autism diagnosis is a beginning, not the end,” she said. “Don’t cry, don’t think ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Just run with it and be the best parent you can be.”

For Iris, that involved ensuring AJ got the early intervention therapy he needed after he was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder at age 2. “I did not feel bad for myself,” she said of hearing the news. “As a parent, I just said, ‘What is it I need to do?’”

Her first step was to contact various southeast Michigan speech therapists until she found one willing and able to immediately start treating AJ. Then, beyond enrolling him in Early Childhood Special Education, she arranged for AJ to receive applied behavior analysis therapy at Gateway, where he is learning new skills related to verbal communication, social interactions, controlling challenging behaviors and, most recently, fine motor skills.

And to further round out his busy schedule, Iris makes sure AJ participates in such extracurricular activities as swimming, ice skating, going to the playground and library and – perhaps his favorite pastime of all – cooking.

“With my son, I don’t handicap him. When you give him a pot and a pan, he is a firecracker,” said Iris, adding that AJ knows how to bake cookies and prepare spaghetti, cabbage and – his favorite – macaroni and cheese.

AJ, she says, is a far different child from the one who three years ago would scream high-pitched noises, bang his head on the wall and cry out when the doctor entered the exam room.

“Now he is transitioning, although he still has things he is working on,” she said. But now, for example, when he sees a group of other children, he’ll engage with them rather than ignore them. “He’ll say, ‘Hi, kids.’ Now he doesn’t mind you touching him or talking to him .”

Back in the Roseville district, AJ will continue to receive special education services, but based on the progress he’s made so far through early intervention, his mother is confident he will eventually gain placement in a general education classroom.

“This guy is very sharp,” she said. “If you see him you will fall in love with him.”