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Family of the Month: “Rhodes’ Story”

The Aerts family is made up of Brennan and Khara Aerts, along with Rhodes and their newest addition, Liv. Khara became concerned about Rhodes as a toddler due to his delays. Khara states, “He was very delayed with his speech, and he was in his own world. He did not connect with us and people in general.” Khara had Rhodes tested. At 2 years, 3 months of age, Rhodes was diagnosed with autism. “I remember feeling hopeless. I never thought I would have a child on the spectrum,” said Khara.

Rhodes began speech therapy at the Bill Wilkerson Center at Vanderbilt 3 days per week. “Rhodes made some progress but seemed to hit a plateau. During this time his began to have more behaviors associated with his autism – hand flapping, climbing on things, becoming frustrated, and having small tantrums,” Khara continued, “I knew a family whose child received services at Autism ETC and they were happy with their child’s progress and they encouraged me to contact the center. After several months on the waiting list, we were able to begin services.”

Rhodes participates full-time in the day therapy program at Autism ETC. When asked what her impressions were when Rhodes began services, Khara shared, “Early on I saw Rhodes falling into the grove. He learned calming strategies and within a short time he was no longer climbing on couches and his stemming decreased. I felt like ABA would be good for him, and having the 1 on 1 therapy sessions and the small therapy rooms allowed him to focus. Within 3 to 4 weeks, he was as different as night and day. He found the place he needed to be”

Khara went on to share how the family training has helped her. “I feel like I have emotional support, and I am not doing this on my own. The staff has given me guidance and support. They suggest strategies and different approaches to help Rhodes. A few months ago, Rhodes regressed into wanting to be carried. Rhodes was 5 years old and I could not figure out what to do to break this cycle. In one family training session, his BCBA offered advice which I followed, and it changed his behavior, and he began walking independently again. Rhodes was struggling with potty training. He was wearing pull-ups and had accidents on a regular basis. The BCBA advised me to get rid of the pull-ups during the day, and now he is 90% potty trained. Recently he said, ‘I have to go potty’ on his own which was a milestone.”

Khara discussed the progress Rhodes has made. “He has a better attention span, He is super engaged and wants to play with other kids and engage with the family. His speech therapist recently told me he has talked more in the last few months than he had in the last year. His stemming has decreased. He is also been patient with his baby sister. He is very loving towards her There have been so many milestones with his behaviors, he is like a completely different kid.”

Khara shared her advice for families who have a child that has been recently diagnosed and are searching for services. “When you get the diagnosis you think it is going to be scary and a difficult journey. I remember feeling hopeless. In the four years we have been on this journey, I have experienced the depth of heartache, but one day, Rhodes pointed at me and said, ‘you are mom’ and I sobbed tears of joy. You can’t give up fighting for your child. There will be highs and lows but you will meet people along the way who can build you up. This is part of the journey and beautiful things can be born out of heartache. The staff at Autism ETC have given me a sense of hope. They love my child and want to help him become the best version of himself.

Looking to the future, Khara said, “Rhodes will be going to school this fall in a blended classroom. I see him sitting at his desk and working calmly as he has been able to do at Autism ETC. He is not like the 3 ½-year-old versions of Rhodes that started at the center. I know he will continue to do amazing things.”

Because of their experience with Rhodes, Brennan and Khara have formed a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to sharing music with children on the spectrum. The Ausome Life program will be offering music classes to children who are diagnosed and are waiting for services twice a month