A Message Of Hope*
We have a “new” minister in our congregation. Jim Haught along with wife, Diane, and children, Amanda, Ben, and Emily, have been in Comanche, Texas for over a year now, and they love it. Diane is one of those people who has a knack that I would love to have…she makes everyone with whom she comes in contact feel better about life. She bubbles, and she laughs. In fact, I’ve never seen her when she wasn’t laughing…except for today.
Today, Diane Haught cried, and then she smiled. “We’ve come a long, long way,” she whispered, not even thinking about the family’s move from Arkansas to Texas.
You see, Jim and Diane Haught are members of what used to be a very exclusive “club’ in this country. Today, however, it is getting easier and easier to join. To be members, all one has to do is be the parent of a child struggling with something we call Autism, something that used to be extremely rare in this country, something that now affects one boy child out of every fifty-five born in the United States. (Girls are affected about one in every sixty-eight births.)
Ben Haught is a little different from many children with Autism. Because he is very high functioning (with an IQ of 142), no one actually caught on to the fact that Ben was autistic until he reached the 5th grade.
“Looking back, it should have been oh so obvious to us, but we just learned to manage Ben’s behavior, his melt downs, etc…from day to day. Jim couldn’t pour him a cup of milk without Ben screaming that he wasn’t doing it right.”
At my questioning look, Diane went on to explain, “Jim is left handed, and Ben couldn’t stand that. We understand now that Jim’s left handed pouring broke the order of Ben’s world, and autistic children have to have order and structure.”
At the time, Jim and Diane didn’t associate Ben’s unexplainable behavior with Autism, not at all. Of course they didn’t. After all, Ben’s symptoms were not like those of the autistic children Diane knew from school and so they punished the boy just as they punished their other children when they misbehaved.
“We realize now that Ben didn’t connect what he did with any of the punishment we handed out. Spanking did nothing but totally terrorize him, and once we realized that, there was obviously no point in spanking him. And yet, we felt like our job wasn’t done until he got the message, but Ben couldn’t get the message.
“Taking a toy away from him was like a nightmare for him, and nothing else that we had used as punishment for our other children worked. Time out didn’t work because, think about it. What do autistic children need? Quiet and peacefulness, therefore, timeout was something that Ben enjoyed even though we didn’t know at the time that he was autistic and needed that quiet order in his life.
“We finally came to understand that we could simply talk to Ben about his behavior. Even when he was three we were able to reason with him. We were very blessed that we could say, ‘We don’t do this because it is dangerous. We don’t do that because it hurts others.’ The only problem,” Diane laughed, “was that Ben came to believe that everything was negotiable. We finally had to get to the point that sometimes we just had to say ‘because I said so’ even though I hate that kind of logic!”
So why did autism never cross the Haught’s minds? I’m guessing that most of us wouldn’t have figured it out either because, as I’ve said, Ben is extremely high functioning.
“We should have caught on to the fact that Ben is very texture driven in foods…not so much in taste, just texture. We should have caught on to that.”
And why did they not see that Ben’s social skills were lacking?
“The reason you can rock along like this is that when children are little, they don’t really play together. They play beside each other. Think about it. If two little boys are driving trucks together, aren’t they actually just driving their own truck beside someone who is also driving his own truck?
“Then, as social interaction began to vamp up in about the 3rd grade, Ben couldn’t go there, but it was in the 5th grade, that time when the social thing really starts to hit, that he just couldn’t take anymore. It wasn’t so much that he was left out of the social groups, etc. Ben didn’t care about that at all. It was the noise of the whole thing that was more than he could stand.
“This was when the meltdowns became bad. The ‘I can’t take it anymore’ and the ‘I can’t stay here’ and the running out of the classroom and into my office began to be a way of life for Ben.”
Thankfully, Diane worked at the school, and Ben did know that he could find a safe haven in her office because it was bad. What is called “forting behavior” also began to occur, with Ben getting under a table and pulling chairs around the table, forting himself inside. The poor little boy had held it together for as long as he could.
Apparently the 5th grade teachers had the attitude that they would force him to do what everyone else does; however, it was Diane’s administrators who went to her, insisting that something was wrong.
And it was at this point in our interview, as Diane walked back through those very, very hard days that she broke…for just a moment.
“The first person to say Autism to me said it in the fall of Ben’s 5th grade year. The principal who was my boss and my friend came to my office, sat there, and said, ‘Diane, there is something wrong.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Diane, I think it is Autism.’
“I thought she had lost her mind. I didn’t see it at all because Ben wasn’t like (I thought) children with autism.”
Even though the thought was foreign to Jim and Diane, they agreed to allow Ben to be tested. The school brought in specialists, but the couple also took Ben to a children’s hospital to see if he was possibly having seizures. He was not. Staring off into space was, however, a sign of Autism.
“Did the doctor paint it black?” I asked.
The tearful reply was, “He tried not to.”
It was at this point that I offered to stop my prying questions. “No, no, we are so far from those days now.”
Diane Haught can color it any way she wants to, but those tears tell the real-life story of a mom who was scared to death, even while knowing that a loving God was completely in control of their lives.
Thankfully, today is a new day for the Haughts, and with her thoughts collected and back in the present, Diane soon had the smile back firmly in place because, truly, Ben has come so far, so very far.
Back then, however, there were plenty of other signs that screamed Autsm.
“As adolescents grow, they get smellier, Ben couldn’t stand the smell. Think about the smell of a gym. It’s something we all recognize, and it actually becomes a part of the whole gym experience, but not for Ben. In elementary school Ben couldn’t go into the gym because of his heightened sense of smell.
“We also had to do things to make sure his schedule stayed rigid. If there was going to be a change, he had to know about it ahead of time. Anything that took him out of his normal routine, he couldn’t do.
“Cub Scouts is organized to be a leader driven organization. That worked for Ben. Boy Scouts is peer driven, and Ben couldn’t do it. He was way above his peers intellectually and way behind them socially.
“We also learned that the tone of the fire alarm would guarantee a meltdown. We solved that problem, because fire drills are scheduled, and I could pick Ben up and take him with me and then bring him back after the drill. Tornado drills didn’t bother him at all.”
After Ben was diagnosed, the Haughts began to document everything they could so as to understand what “set him off.” According to Diane, this is one of the best things to do for someone with Autism.
“Meltdowns are always preceded by something, but Ben can never tell you what it was. What you can’t do is touch him or talk to him during a meltdown, and that is the most counter intuitive thing there is for someone to do, but it is the way you have to handle someone with Autism. Don’t touch and don’t talk.”
Apparently Ben’s meltdowns don’t come immediately.
“If he has a melt down during 4th period, 90% of the time it has nothing to do with that class. You have to back up to some other point in the day.
“Finishing the 5th and 6th grade was really, really hard. Ben was on some meds, but with Autism, you are pretty much on your on to find your own resources. We had a counseling center that sent people to the school to help with things like the meltdowns. Although we were dealing with a child, we were also dealing with someone very smart, and he would play us all.”
And then, last year the Haughts moved to Comanche, Texas, and Diane Haught has nothing but glowing remarks to make about Comanche High School and the students who walk its halls.
“According to doctors, Ben is at ½-2/3 of his proper social maturity level. Right now he is 16, and his behavior is anywhere from 71/2 -10 years old, but he will continue to mature. When he is 30, his social maturity will be that of a 15-20 year old.”
“Since we moved here, Ben has begun to make attachments to teachers, something he couldn’t do before. He is also beginning to make friends here at Comanche. The prognosis was that he would most likely never have a peer group in high school, but in Comanche, he is making friends because these kids are different.
“This is the most innocent bunch of kids. They are very kind and open hearted. They are without pretense and without the social games. And they are generally friendly to him away from the school as well. “The kids here are fantastic. The school system is awesome. And we are talking about high school kids…They are just different here.”
And the prognosis for Ben?
“The prognosis is that he will go to college. Hopefully, he can be on his own, but he doesn’t want to be far from us and he will have to have a job that is filled with order and structure. He likes computers, and I think he will do well with the structure in that world.
“You just have to remember that Autism is a processing disorder. Autistic children do not process conversation at all like you and I would. For instance, if I were to say that someone is going to hang in there and fight, Ben might say, ‘Mom, he’s too little to fight!’ Autistic children are very, very literal.”
And then, I debated asking one last question, that question that to me is all important in the study of Autism. Why? What happened? Why in basically one generation have we gone from one in hundreds to one in fifty-five. There has to be a reason, and I fear that reason is one of the biggest cover-ups of all time. However, I wanted to know what the Haughts think. What has changed in this country over the course of the past 40 years?
“That is the question that haunts me in the wee small hours of the morning. What happened? Why? What did I do differently?
“I have tried to keep up with the ongoing research and debates. In my heart I do not want to believe that Autism is on the rise because of vaccines. But I have learned too much and experienced too much first hand to totally discount the possibility. If the two are related, we must figure it out. Research continually is being funded and the results are being torn apart.
“But what I do know is that Autism families are made of the toughest stuff. We all have individual stories but can finish each other’s sentences. We are a family with bonds forged in the hallways and playgrounds of our children. There’s an expression that we use when talking….we “get it!!!” That means there is an unspoken meeting of the minds, kindred spirits, an understanding the struggle and victories of each day.
“I can’t thank you enough for letting me talk about our story. When we finish our epic journey we will not just survive, or just thrive…we will arrive at the victory circle with our hands raised in triumph.”
And I will say it again. Diane Haught inspires me every single day. What a Message of Hope she and her entire family send to everyone they meet.*It is our hope here at United that those of you who have been forced to walk with your child on this road we call Autism will find comfort in each other’s personal stories. If you would like to share your own personal story or if you would like to contact Ben’s parents email email@example.com.