2012-04-19 / Front Page

Mother struggles to provide autism therapy; Lions help

By Amy Hubbell
of the Enterprise staff

VALERINE BRINKS smiles, proud of her autistic son, PJ’s accomplishments. But he needs additional tutoring in reading to function well in society. VALERINE BRINKS smiles, proud of her autistic son, PJ’s accomplishments. But he needs additional tutoring in reading to function well in society. The Cedar-Maple City Lions Club has stepped up to help a county student with autism.

The club has pledged $5,000 to help Valerie Brinks get additional language tutoring for her son PJ, who has high functioning autism.

“That means he has near normal mental development, self-help skills and adaptive behavior (other than social skills),” Brinks said of her 25-year-old son. “He can remember almost everything. He is especially knowledgeable about cars and engines.… He can see a car on the road and tell you everything about it, the make, model year, brake system … Just brilliant.”

But it wasn’t easy to get PJ to this point.

“I’ve worked long and hard to get PJ where he is today,” Brinks said. “He’s gone from being nonverbal at 7 years old to fully talkative at 12.”

Starting Oct. 1, a recently passed state law will be implemented requiring insurance companies to pay for the coverage of therapy provided to autistic children. In the mean time and historically, though, the families of autistic children have had to pay out of their own pockets for help beyond that provided by local school districts.

PJ has had speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, followed special diets and seen special doctors. At the time, Brinks was living out of state.

“I think the biggest challenge for me as a parent is that most people don’t realize how great the financial need is for parents of autistic kids, as insurance doesn’t cover many of the special treatments,” the single mother said, adding that money for her son’s treatment came out of her pocket. “Getting help for your autistic child is a lifelong project.”

While PJ has made great process, there’s still ground to be made up academically. Two years ago, Brinks’ son told her all he wanted to do was to be able to read, write and do math like other kids.

“That did it … I had to find a way to get him to read,” Brinks said.

She found the Lindamood Bell program and moved to Boston from where they were living because it wasn’t available in Michigan. With financial assistance from his father, who paid for the instruction, PJ made great progress jumping from a development level between the first and second grades to sixth grade level.

“His confidence tripled,” Brinks said.

But his father’s funds were unexpectedly cut off and PJ had to leave the program.

“In the time we did have there, the difference in PJ was amazing and the fact that he ‘could’ learn was even more satisfying,” Brinks said.

Last year she and PJ moved to Leelanau County, where she had established ties during summers past.

She is now working at LeBecasse in Burdickville and the family’s dream has come true. The program that did wonders for him in Massachusetts is being offered in Petoskey this summer.

PJ has been retested and its been determined that he needs 200 to 240 more hours of instruction at a total cost of $20,000.

“It’s a great cost, but if you think in terms of the difference this will make in his life, it’s not so much,” Brinks said. “What it brings to PJ is a way to live in this world and be able to be normal.”

The training will not only enable him to read but to spell and do the day-to-day math that people need to buy things, budget and be independent, his mother said.

“Without getting this, he’ll always need help and feel inferior,” Brinks said of the only reading program that has worked for her son. “Imagine how you would feel without being able to read, write or count money… He’ll be able to get and keep a job.”

PJ is currently getting “work experience” — training with no pay — at Gene’s Auto Parts in Grand Traverse County and is doing well. He’s been able to get his hands on the one thing he loves — cars.

“It’s given him the dream he’s always had and taken away the constant anxiety that he had at other jobs,” Brinks said.

The additional reading instruction will give PJ what he needs to be a productive member of society.

“Kids with autism can recover. Ten to 20 percent lose their diagnoses. I believe PJ is one of those kids,” Brink said. “I know because he is so close.”

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