The first few months of Reeve Thomas’ life were filled with smiles, coos and giggles. But as his parents Emily and Bob Thomas watched, their firstborn became increasingly lethargic. He struggled to reach developmental milestones. Test after test could not tell them why. A few months after his first birthday, he stopped using words.
On Jan. 18, 2005, Bob came home from work and it appeared that his almost 2-year-old son no longer recognized him. Two weeks later, Reeve was diagnosed with autism.
Everything changed. Chronic stress and anxiety threatened to overwhelm the family. But Emily, who had worked with children on the autism spectrum, turned her family’s need for information and a community of care into helping create Essential Pieces, an educational program of Lutheran Family Services of Virginia.
“A lot of the things that God calls us to do are the difficult things,” Emily said.
Essential Pieces, a Lutheran Family Services of Virginia program, opened a "huge window" for Shelley Drago and her son, Camdyn, 4, diagnosed with autism last September.
Named for the pieces of a puzzle, it "[puts] the pieces together for the sake of our children," said James H. Utt, a pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Winchester, Va., where the program began in 2008.
Today, Essential Pieces offers eight-week evening sessions that connect parents of autistic children with community resources and professionals. It helps parents become proactive in accessing occupational and physical therapy, vocational rehabilitation, advocacy in schools, sign language, diet, music and even horsemanship. While their parents are learning, children with autism and their siblings play games and sing songs in a social group.
|Stephanie Doney, 10 (clockwise from left), Teagan Bradley, 10, and Clara Doney, 7, take a break from a popular parachute activity offered by Lutheran Family Services of Virginia's Essential Pieces social groups. The groups provide activities for children on the autism spectrum and their "neurotypical" siblings, while their parents attend education sessions.|
Camdyn loves to go and meet new friends, Drago said. Calling Essential Pieces "wonderful," she added, "And it's free for parents. It's the best organization I've been a part of. If the children are happy, that's everything."
Autism spectrum disorders, caused by brain abnormalities, have become more prevalent in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism.
Utt said Essential Pieces gives parents a break and is a way the congregation can be a welcoming, safe place for families who have children with special needs.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers