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When Asher turned two, parents Joel and Shannon noticed that their firstborn wasn’t reaching typical developmental milestones, observing that “what he could process was not even close to the rest of the kids around his age or even younger.” Shannon, who was pregnant with their second child Eliza at the time, remembers how a friend, coincidentally also pregnant and with a daughter Asher’s age, bought a doll for her daughter to “practice” with in preparation for the arrival of the new baby. “We got Asher a doll,” she recollects, “and he was just not interested at all in any baby care stuff and playing pretend with it.” Joel concurs, adding, “he couldn’t really process the idea that there was going to be a baby.” 

They began in-home services through their school district, which led to Asher’s autism diagnosis, as well as a referral to St. David’s Center for outpatient therapy and the autism day treatment programDespite the initial feelings of grief and isolation that Joel and Shannon experienced upon receiving Asher’s diagnosis, they quickly found themselves surrounded by an extensive network of support at St. David’s Center. I feel like early intervention for our family was almost more helpful for us than for Asher,” says Shannon, “because it gave us resources and a way to understand.  

Joel and Shannon’s deepened understanding of Asher’s needs, in tandem with the direct services Asher was receiving at St. David’s Center, resulted in transformative changes in his behavior. When Asher first started therapies at St. David’s Center, he faced challenges with distractibility, self-regulation, and sensory processing sensitivity and avoidance, which impacted daily routines such as self-care and mealtimes. He struggled with social engagement, play, and proper use of language. Despite his difficulties engaging with his external environment, “it was clear that he was a highly creative kiddo with an expansive inner world, says Ana, one of his ADT therapists.  

Asher’s day treatment team worked with him to expand his imaginative play, allowing peers and familiar adults to join him in his imaginative world, “making sure that people in and outside of his home and day treatment room [could] understand his wants and needs, by supporting functional communication,” states therapist Ana. They focused on play-based activities, adds occupational therapist MacKenzie, “to ground him in his body in space, preparing his body to process incoming information and respond with decreased fight or flight responses. 

The resilience and innate strengths that Asher brought to the therapeutic process were evident from the beginning. “Asher encounters different challenges daily yet consistently shows up with excitement and vulnerability,” recounts Lindsay, his speech language pathologist. Due to his hard work, Asher has become an “active social participant,” as MacKenzie describes, noting significant increases in social engagement as well as sustained attention during play and daily routines. He has made massive strides in adaption to unexpected change in his environment and self-regulation – a skill that he adroitly employs with the latest addition to the family, baby Juniper. “She came home from the hospitalshe was a preemie and she was just tiny,” Shannon reminisces. “He would come and look at her, and he would be wiggling and kicking his legs but having really gentle hands, or he would be a little too excited, so he wouldn’t touch her. He would just kind of stay because he knew he needed to be really gentle, but his body was so excited, and him having that regulation was amazing to see.” 

When the COVID-19 public health crisis disrupted Asher’s in-person services, St. David’s Center’s staff nimbly facilitated his transition to receiving both occupational therapy and feeding therapy through a telehealth model, while maintaining the thread of continuity with a therapist he trusted. “It wasn’t like having to meet a new person,” says Asher’s dad, Joel. “We call MacKenzie on the tablet.” Interjects mom Shannon, “And he loves her.” From a therapists’ perspective, this integration of a new modality has its own unique benefits, as MacKenzie affirms. “Using telehealth has significantly increased our team dynamic,” she declares, as it has opened more understanding to the home environment, which in my opinion will significantly increase long term functional skill, as this is where kids grow and learn for the bulk of their days. 

This “new normal” has been so successful in its execution that St. David’s Center was chosen in September as one of a select few facilities to host a private tour for Dr. Jill Biden. Recalls Shannon, “I remember I dropped Asher off the day that Jill Biden visited in Minnetonka, and I was like, how can we show off the best of Minnesota’s educational and support staff? Obviously, you would go to St. David’s.”  

Just as Asher has built many skills that enable him to be successful, Joel and Shannon also found themselves on the receiving end of an “unbelievable source of knowledge and resources.” Armed with these tools, they are prepared to tackle any obstacle in Asher’s road to success, with words of hope and encouragement for other parents walking this path with their children. “Remember that a diagnosis is just a key to unlock,” attests Shannon. “You have the same child no matter what you do. You can either choose to support them – who they are – or you can suffer another way. But your child isn’t going to change [if] you deny that they need extra support. So, look for support. 

At St. David’s Center, this support takes the form of an integral, multi-faceted partnership – between caregivers, children, and staff. Asher’s therapist Ana summarizes the nature of this collaborative working relationship between all parties involved in Asher’s care, stating, “I understand my role working with our parents as one of partnership: partnership with families to reduce distress, see their child’s strengths, and foster their child’s growth. I hope for our families and children to feel seen on their journey, and to feel that their clinicians understand 360 degrees of their child’s strengths and difficulties. I hope to join with families in witnessing and appreciating their children’s brilliance, tenacity, and sensitivity, even when these features might make it challenging to move through a world that wasn’t built for neurodivergence.  

Now six, Asher’s world continues to expand and enrich all those who inhabit it, filled with an active schedule that incorporates his distance learning kindergarten class as well as St. David’s Center’s autism day treatment program and telehealth feeding therapy. As for his parents, they can’t imagine a better fit for their “silly, sweet, affectionate” son. At St. David’s Center, says Shannon, “there is a rare focus on the kids as humans who deserve empathy and respect. We feel so blessed to have St. David’s in our life.” 

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