Parenting Child With Autism is Challenging But Rewarding

By all accounts, Charlie Headley was a happy, healthy baby ― even holding his own bottle when he was just 1 month old and walking at 9 months. But when he got a little older, his mother suspected that something was wrong.

“It wasn’t just one thing; it was a few things. He would kind of just gaze off. He wasn’t really reacting when people called him by name and then, at around 12 to 14 months he stopped saying the few words he knew,” his mom, Laura, recalled. At first, she attributed his regression to a lack of socialization due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. But as someone who had worked with special needs children, she began to believe it was more serious.

She was right. Charlie was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday.


(Watch video: Hear from Laura Headley, whose son Charlie was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday. Video by Alcyene de Almeida Rodrigues.)

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disability that has been on the rise in the U.S. over the past several decades. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just before April’s Autism Acceptance Month showed that as many as one in 36 children have ASD.

Although every child with autism is different, common issues include problems with communication and social interaction. They often have speech and language difficulties, exhibit repetitive motions, are overly sensitive to certain sounds or other sensory stimulation and prefer to play by themselves.

Today, Charlie is 4 and is making great progress thanks to the South Miami Hospital Child Development Center, his mother said. A part of Baptist Health, the Child Development Center, which has been offering outpatient care for the last 30 years, includes developmental pediatricians, occupational and physical therapists, speech/language pathologists and social workers.

“He does occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy and he’s doing so well,” Ms. Headley said. “He has so much fun. Working with the therapists here at the Child Development Center has been just amazing. I attribute so much of his improvement to starting therapy so early.”

Carmen de Lerma, M.D., director of the Center, said early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in helping children with ASD live up to their full potential. While there is no single diagnostic test for autism, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism-specific screening for all children at 18 and 24 months. “We would like to see the child as soon as you begin noticing that they are not progressing in language skills or socializing at the level you would expect for their age,” Dr. de Lerma said.

Ms. Headley said it would have been easy to ignore Charlie’s problems because he was advanced in so many ways. “Charlie was always physically very adept, very quick,” she said. “He was excelling in other things, too. He had a huge palate. He loved salmon and eggs and all sorts of fruits and veggies.” 

For the Headley family, life with Charlie and his 2-year-old neurotypical brother, Tommy, is challenging at times but also rewarding. “There’s a bit of a stigma that your whole life is going to change when you have a child with autism,” Charlie’s mom said. “It’s normal to be a little scared, but you adapt. Having kids is life-changing already and parenting is 24/7. At the end of the day, it has its wonderful rewards.”

In the past two years, Charlie’s eye contact has improved greatly and he has become comfortable around groups of people. When the family went to Disney World recently, he happily went on every ride. “Charlie is high-spirited, energetic, funny, loves to laugh and loves to play. Anyone who’s neurotypical smiles to be polite,” Ms. Headley said. “I’ll smile at you to be polite, to show you that I’m friendly. But Charlie, who has autism, smiles out of pure joy. So when you get that smile from him, you know you earned it.”

The future, she said, is bright for the Headleys. They will continue to travel and go on adventures together, and spend time outdoors, especially at the beach, the park and the zoo. “Autism doesn’t stop us from living our lives,” she said.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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