By: KIANA NORMAN-SLACK, ’17
Mother and two autistic boys build extraordinary bond as they learn about each other, and themselves.
Pam Dewberry, 51, works as a Tele-Service Representative for Social Security Administration. The job description includes helping individuals apply for retirement benefits, file for survivor benefits (if a spouse passes away), and applying for disability services such as Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income. Dewberry has worked for Social Security for a number of years, and has just begun working part-time, to better care of her new house, and her family.
The inside of Dewberry’s house is warm and inviting. The scent of apple cinnamon candles swirled around the living room, and the electric fireplace blazed away, providing heat and a sense of comfort. Dewberry looks younger than she actually is, and is very well put together. Dewberry was dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and (very clean) black Converse as she sat at her Easter-themed kitchen table. Her upper body dazzled with jewelry of different kinds, and her eyes sparkled with each blink.
Seemingly, Dewberry lives a very comfortable life with her husband and two adult sons. Something people may not know about her, though, is that her two adult sons are autistic.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or just plainly Autism, are both terms used to describe a group of complex disorders of brain development. These different types of disorders vary from difficulties in social interactions, all the way to the ability to speak. Over 3 million people in the U.S are affected by autism, that’s means that one in 68 people are diagnosed with ASD according to the U.S Center for Disease Control.
Dewberry’s two adult sons, Jacob and Michael, have both been autistic from birth. She notes that the autism didn’t start to show up in either of them until they were about two or three-years-old. “Things that kids would normally do at that age, like begin to put words together and things like that, they were very late in doing that.” she said.
Dewberry’s oldest son’s name is Jacob, and she describes his autism as “classically autistic.” Jacob is non-verbal, 26-years-old, and a very joyful person. Jacob stayed in high school until he was 21-years-old, and nowadays he bounces around the house and hangs out with his dad, who is medically retired. “He is awesome,” Dewberry said. “No matter where we are, someone knows him. He’s always happy, and he has a sense of humor.”
So how does he let Dewberry know when he isn’t happy? “He’ll let you know when he’s upset by his facial expressions. He has a persistent personality, which becomes a safety issue. If he sees something in his mind that he wants it, he’ll take off running for it,” she said with a chuckle. “My husband can hardly keep up with him.” Jacob has an adult stroller to help with issues like this. Whenever the family goes out, they load Jacob comfortably up in his stroller, and stroll him around. Jacob has problems with his feet as well, so the stroller helps him get around because he’s not able to walk long distances.
Her second oldest son’s name is Michael, and his type of autism is called Asperger’s Syndrome. Michael is 22-years-old, and he is a “highly intelligent individual” she said. “He is very gifted and skilled in computers.”
Michael is majoring in Interactive Media Design (developing video games) at the University of Washington and is set to graduate in June with a Bachelor’s Degree. Dewberry said that Michael has always been hooked on video games. “From the time Michael was able to sit up on his own, probably around two or three-years-old, when he discovered there was such a thing as a video game, he was transfixed from day one. He used to just sit and watch his dad and friends play the games, he was mesmerized. When he was finally able to hold the controller, he was hooked.” Being focused on one certain thing is a trait of Asperger’s Syndrome, but Dewberry said she had no idea at the time.
“I knew absolutely nothing about autism,” Dewberry said, “I don’t know if I had ever heard of it, to be honest with you. When my oldest boy was diagnosed with autism, I took it upon myself to learn everything I could about autism, in hopes of understanding what it was.”
Dewberry took the time to learn as much as she could about the disorder, and had difficulty accepting the reality of it all.
“I went through a plethora of emotions, you kind of go through a grieving process when you’re told that your child has a disability such as autism. You go through denial, you go through anger, depression, and then acceptance. But the road getting to that acceptance has been pretty hard. You just accept that it is what it is and you make the best of the situation.” she said.
Dewberry’s husband came into the boys’ lives as a step-dad when they were around seven or eight-years-old. Dewberry’s husband said that he always wanted kids, and soon after they got married, he automatically wanted them to be his, legally. So, Dewberry’s husband adopted the two boys. “Jacob, that’s my buddy. We hang out and hold the fort down while Pam is away. Sometimes he gets cabin fever, he’s not able to go out on his own. So, every week or so we’ll go out and have lunch and stuff. Michael and I have a different bond. A lot of the times when he would be really upset, I would take charge and have to talk him down from his fits. It was a scary feat, but I believe that our relationship has grown stronger over those adversities.”
The grieving process for Jacob was very hard, Dewberry said, because he isn’t able to speak. “He can’t say when he’s sick or sad.” Dewberry said that it’s difficult to understand what he wants. She has tried communication devices such as sign language and other communication machines, but he didn’t take to any of that.
“When he was little, I went through a time where [if] he would get into things and I would get really upset and start to yell at him, and he would just laugh. It would make me even more upset, but immediately after [yelling at him] I would feel so bad. I realize now that him laughing was just a nervous reaction.” Dewberry said that she would give his hand a spank with a belt whenever he would act up, but she said, “I realized pretty quickly that he didn’t understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. That’s when I came to the conclusion that I would work hard to use my words and work hard in disciplining him and I would never spank his hand again.”
Michael had a difficult time growing up as well, Dewberry said. “It wasn’t easy for him to make friends. He went through depression, bullying, and suicidal tendencies. . .What parent wants to come face to face with their own child wanting to kill himself?”
Dewberry said that he struggled with these things not because of the autism, but as a result of it. Michael has since overcome those challenges, because of Dewberry. “The main key for me was positive reinforcement and hope that he would somehow come out the other side okay. He’s so much better today.”
In the process of learning with and about her two autistic sons, Dewberry said that before she worked for Social Security, she worked at a school with autistic children as a para-educator. “It was the most difficult job ever, but I loved it. I developed the deepest compassion for disabled children.”
Dewberry laughed when she remembered how people used to treat her and her sons in public. “People would ask if they were mine. Like, did you adopt them? Like, did you really choose that life? People would say some of the stupidest things. It used to bother me, but I got to a point to where [the comments and] the stares didn’t bother me. Early on, it really bothered me, but I guess you develop a thick skin.” Dewberry said she wants to provide the best life possible for her two boys. “I try my best to take care of them and make sure they have what they need. I ask myself what else I can do. I always want them to have a better quality of life.”