From the time her son Braden was about six months old, Mindi Stephenson knew something wasn’t quite right.
“He couldn’t roll over on his own,” Stephenson recalled. “He would gain and lose weight all the time, and when he was nine months old he was diagnosed with failure to thrive. He couldn’t stand on his own until he was 18 months old, and he was 2 before he could walk.”
Language also proved difficult for Braden, so much so that his mother taught him sign language so she was able to communicate with him.
“He was 3 before he really started to say words,” Stephenson said.
Eventually, Braden was diagnosed with autism. Currently, he is being evaluated and his mother believes he will be diagnosed in the near future with Asperger’s syndrome.
Today Braden, who is less than a week away from his sixth birthday, is flourishing. He is a kindergartener at Hose Elementary.
One of the main reasons Braden has come as far as he has, Stephenson believes, is because of Michalina Peterson, a teacher at Willson Developmental Preschool in Crawfordsville.
“Mrs. Peterson became Braden’s best friend,” Stephenson said. “After he was evaluated, he started going to Willson three days a week.”
At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, Braden had a vocabulary of 15-20 words. By the time he left Willson in June, he was speaking in sentences, counting to 20, singing the ABCs and talking about his feelings and emotions. He was having actual conversations with his mother, stepfather William Stephenson and 8-year-old sister Alexis.
“As much help as I always had when Braden was little ... from Riley (Hospital for Children) and First Steps, I just couldn’t get through to him the way I wanted to and I felt bad,” Stephenson said. “After he had been at Willson for a couple of weeks he was loving school and making friends. I never thought that would happen for Braden.”
Peterson said the biggest areas of concentration at Willson for children on the autism spectrum are social and communication skills.
“They don’t know how to ask questions, how to talk to people or how to tell people what they want or need,” she said.
Peterson has been at Willson for six years. She has worked in special education for nine years, and she is still passionate about her job.
“It’s exciting for me,” she said. “I love watching them get to their milestones. For us, little things are big things. We get very excited for our kids.”
Stephenson was worried that Braden would have trouble moving from Willson to Hose. In the past, environment changes led to major regression issues.
So far there have been some problems with Braden being teased by classmates — he sometimes stutters and it can be hard to understand him when he speaks.
But because of the coping mechanisms he learned at Willson, Braden is making it.
“I absolutely, positively know he wouldn’t be the kid he is today if it hadn’t been for Willson,” Stephenson said. “Before he was so nervous about school ... he’d cling to me and he wouldn’t want to go. Now he gets sad if he doesn’t have school.”
Peterson often does follow-up with former students, and plans to keep tabs on Braden for a while.
“These kids become part of my family,” she said. “They make me laugh. They give big hugs. Being with them is the best part of this job.”