On Monday, July 19, 2010, David Allen Williams began a new job. It wasn’t just any new job, it was his first job. Congratulations David, but why does this make the news? “If you could have seen from where he came, you would be totally amazed!” said Brett Chancellor, Operations Director at First Step’s Petty Center in Malvern. “When I first saw David, he was nonverbal, made no eye contact, and gave only minimal indications of his needs and wants.”
David, now 35, has a form of autism spectrum disorder, a term used to describe one of many different sensory disorders. When an individual has trouble processing information received from one or more of his/her senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) he or she is said to have a sensory disorder. Although autism is the most common and most pervasive sensory disorder, and the numbers of children diagnosed with autism is on the rise, little is known about its cause and treatment. A person with autism may indeed be extremely intelligent, but something short circuits the information received by the brain and does not allow the brain center to process it accurately.
David’s story began in 1978, when he entered preschool at First Step’s Petty Center in Malvern. “David came to us when he was about three years old,” said Linda Kemp, First Step Associate Executive Director. Susan Smoke, another First Step staffer, remembered David’s early years, “He was a beautiful child with brown hair and big brown eyes. He was nonverbal but very observant. He would stand and watch the children play but was very tentative about joining in.” David’s early classroom instructors were Jan Kirk and Hester Hopkins who spent a great deal of time with him, singing songs and teaching him to sign the ABC’s. Even with regular speech therapy his instructors never heard David speak. First Step continued to serve David after he began public school. His teacher, Martha Hurst, reported that he would walk around with his head down and his eyes narrowed to slits or closed altogether. He did begin speaking in short phrases, but would only talk to certain people and kept to himself. His family moved to Hot Springs and upon graduation, David was admitted to First Step’s Hot Springs Adult Development program and remained there for several years. In 2003, his family moved to Bismarck and David transferred back to the Petty Center. With the smaller adult population at the Malvern center, David began to open up and talk to more consumers and staff. He became friends with another male consumer who did not talk much and was difficult to understand. Staff observed them sitting together and laughing.
When David told Linda Kemp that he wanted to live in one of First Step’s adult apartments, she couldn’t believe her ears. “I knew I needed a witness for this one,” said Kemp. “Before I left to find someone, I told David that I was going to bring in a person to confirm what he had told me. I told him to speak up and talk plainly so that the witness could understand what he was saying. I came back with Debbie Meeks, Adult Development Supervisor. I asked, ‘David, do you want to live in an apartment?’ He answered me loud and clear. ‘“Yes,” he said, “I want to live in an apartment.”’
Chancellor remembers, “David had no social skills and was considered nonverbal. After moving into the apartment, he stayed to himself. When anyone entered, David would run to the bathroom and lock the door. Once, when I was with him, David stayed locked in the bathroom for two hours, screaming incoherent words at the top of his lungs. I finally talked him out, and he calmed down a little. That was a pretty tough one.”
Chancellor continued, “About a year ago, different staff members began commenting to me about the words they had heard David say. Our maintenance staff even mentioned things he had said to them. That’s when I began to take notice of the change in David. I had never heard him say anything, and all these people were telling me what they had heard. I’ll never forget the first time I heard David speak. We had taken the group of adults to a local fast-food restaurant, and David was sitting next to me. We had been there a while, and the group was having a great time. Johnny Brown (not his real name) is the class clown. He’s always having a good time and trying to make the others laugh. Well, out of the blue, David turned to me and said ‘Johnny Brown’s gettin’ on my nerves.’ I just about passed out, but I held it together long enough to comment, ‘Well, he’s kind of getting on my nerves, too.’ At that point, I knew David’s life was changing in a major way, and that change was for the better.”
Just a few weeks ago, Chancellor was standing in the hall of the Petty Center’s adult development facility, “David came up to me and said, ‘I want a job. Can you get me a job?’ I couldn’t imagine that was even a remote possibility, but I thought that if David wanted to work, we would find him a job. We arranged for David to assist the janitorial staff at the center as part of First Step’s Supported Employment program. When he heard the news, David was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to start to work. “
The weekend before David was to begin work, Chancellor and other staff took the group on a trip to Branson and the Silver Dollar City theme park. While waiting in line at one of the rides, the operator turned and asked David, “Are you excited?” meaning, of course, about the prospects of the ride. David said, “Yep. Got a job; start Monday. I’m excited.” That evening the group ate at a Branson restaurant. Chancellor said he was prepared to order David’s meal for him, but when the server came to David, he looked up and said, “I want a rib eye, medium well, and a baked potato.” “I couldn’t believe it,” said Chancellor. “I just couldn’t believe it! That was more than we were prepared to spend, but I thought if David could order a rib eye, I was going to buy him a rib eye.
Now, we’re back to where this article started. Chancellor said, “David started work this morning. He’s part of our Supported Employment program, working as a janitor’s assistant at the Petty Center. This first day, he’ll only work for an hour, we don’t want to overwhelm or stress him. He’s got the vacuum, and he’s running it around the baseboards of our hall areas, zapping bugs and dust and such. It’s a bright day here at the Petty Center! One of the women in my office has been crying all day.” After a laugh, Chancellor said, “I may have to send her home; she’s so overjoyed with David’s success. We’re all just amazed and thrilled.” After starting his new job, David has shown progress almost daily. He now speaks to just about every co-worker and others he meets in the hall and is engaging them in a meaningful conversation. According to Chancellor, “He’s a long, long way from the boy who would not speak or even look at anyone.”
The life of David Allen Williams is not the only success story at First Step. There are many others, but to be honest, not every story is one of such accomplishment. Sometimes we have to look through many dark clouds to find one silver lining. This is particularly true for a parent of a child with autism and for those involved in treating children with the disorder. Some children respond quickly and easily; for others, it may take years for a bright spot to appear, and still for others … well, that bright spot has to be diligently sought, and every leaf has to be turned over and over until one learns to appreciate even the smallest accomplishments. The therapists, teachers and staff at First Step are too well acquainted with the search for triumphs, but they are there.
First Step has recently opened the Ann and Nick Tillman Project for Children with Sensory Needs. Teachers, therapists and other workers are trained in a variety of methods and approaches because what works for one may not work for another. This is a cutting-edge project and is the brain child of First Step Executive Director Pam Bland. According to Bland, “The Ann and Nick Tillman Project brings the latest in treatment for children with autism to our service communities. Within a few months, this project will be implemented in all of First Step’s seven service centers. This is the most up-to-date treatment for autistic children, and we are able to offer it right here in our own community.”
First Step’s motto is “Making a Difference in Your Community.” First Step has lived up to this motto once again.