Crews Plummer's first summer soiree back to the splash pad was a kid's dream on a hot summer Friday. The almost 5-year-old was with is mom Julie and sister Kate, 8.
You would not stretch it to say Crews was just about the cutest kid there under the sun and sprays. With dark eyes like inkwells and photogenic smile, Crews darted and giggled and was lost in a world of pure joy.
On the side, Julie smiled as her two children played on this virgin summer outing. Her pretty blue eyes tracked her youngest this lazy summer day and belied the turmoil, but mostly triumphs, this past year in her family.
Julie is a warrior mom and husband Chris is a ferociously loving father. What could have pulled them apart as a team, instead cemented their love and commitment to each other and their quest for answers for Crews.
A year ago their little boy got a "loose" diagnosis of autism.
In layman's terms, autism has many levels of spectrums. Crews has several therapists and experts say to be diagnosed with autism the child meets several of five different area deficits; language, social interaction/communication, adaptive skills such as dressing and feeding, motor skills and repetitive/restricted interest. There is mild, moderate and severe. Crews' therapist said Crews' certainly isn't severe.
While it was a punch in the gut at first as they grappled with feelings and fears, the official diagnosis made things finally make sense.
The couple began a year long - at times baffling and bewildering - process to quickly education themselves through experts, personal research, and a cadre of devoted friends, to proactively pinpoint the best possible treatment and progress to help Crews communicate and learn to flourish during childhood and into adulthood.
"He rocks our world!" Julie said Friday before the splash pad visit and while Crews first met for a couple hours with a behavior therapist. "He has us wrapped around his finger. We preach early intervention."
At first 'met every milestone'
Chris is principal at West Elementary School and Julie is a highly experienced marketing expert at Tri-Star Summit. While Crews worked on skills with Autism & Behavior Consulting Services in Nashville therapist Brian Raftery down the hall with sister Kate nearby, these parents sat side by side, arms touching in Chris's office at West as they talk about their journey to today; and, their son's remarkable progress this past year.
"At this time last year Crews was almost non-verbal," said Julie, who pared back her work schedule at the hospital to mostly work from home when the diagnoses came. "He's come so far. He struggles with speech, some social interaction and conversation."
It was a great pregnancy with Crews, like her sister he was born via C-section. At about 1 month old, Crews got severe colic.
"He didn't sleep at night, but we knew it was part of the process of being parents," Julie said. "He was hospitalized at Vanderbilt with RSV and got ear infections."
"But he was meeting every milestone," dad said. "In fact, ahead of some of his friends. He was a happy little boy."
At around age 2, during their church's Bible School Chris and Julie "noticed something kind of odd." Crews was falling behind and not catching up by age 3. He somewhat retreated out of the group.
"We were told he was 'all boy,' would catch up and all's fine," recalled Julie.
By that time their parent's intuition was persistent. It got to the point Crews was non-verbal. But, he was always affectionate and loving to his parents and sister. He went from being a peer model for West's special education class, to almost overnight being a student.
"Everyone was an expert," Chris said. "Finally, Crews had a loose diagnosis of a variation of autism."
That's all it took for these parents to hit the gas on ways to find help for Crews.
"We don't shy from it and don't want to hide it," Chris said. "We own it either way. We began to meet more and more parents dealing with the same thing and this opened a whole new world."
Julie's eyes filled.
"I crave the day he has great days at school, is happy and we can have typical mom and son conversations."
Kate tells people, "There's nothing really wrong with my brother, except, sometimes his brain doesn't work like others.'"
She's the quintessential protective big sister, even when sometimes Crews gets frustrated and hits her, or knocks things off the toy table.
"He loves me and is my friend," she said while watching Crews' therapy session. "We like to play chase, but I usually catch him."
Crews loves to run and recently completed a kids' marathon.
He loves roller-coaster rides, his family, swimming, Disney World, airplanes and chocolate cake. Attending the recent Predators Stanley Cup games in Nashville were a highlight for him and crowds don't bother him at all. And, he loves pizza.
When mom asked him what he needed for his day at the splash pad, he quickly piped up and said "pizza!"
And, yes, Crews speaks more and more. Raftery worked with him Friday on articulation and the concept of time and honed in to teach precise pronunciation of the words "yes," and "bus" as well as sitting still and attention.
"We are working with him to be ready for kindergarten settings," he said. "He shows great responsiveness to the therapy."
Crews attends ABC Services four days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., in addition to in-home therapy on Fridays. He also goes to Little Fox Therapy in Mt. Juliet.
And while this parent team is ruthless in their quest to help their son, it doesn't mean they don't break down. They cry, they question and said their religious faith has gotten them through this past year.
Chris freely admits when he's alone sometimes he breaks down about the daunting, but hopeful future. But, their unspoken general rule is they don't cry at the same time.
"We have to be cheerleaders for each other," Chris said. "We are an open book. Everyone who knows us knows this is our story. We have wonderful people to support us."
He said Crews is "his own individual."
"No, we don't go around with bumpers stickers that say our son has autism," Chris said. "But, we want our story of hope and success moving on to encourage other people."
Julie said early intervention is paramount and they take advantage of every resource they can uncover.
Even an ordinary hair cut frustrated Crews, but Chris was right there to tell him what he could to calm down. Staying calm is key.
"Which is interesting because both of us have tempers," laughed Julie. "But never with Crews."
Each moment with him is a teaching moment for these parents who have adjusted to Crews and autism.
"People look at us if Crews acts up and probably think I should discipline him in the grocery story," Julie said. "We see him grow up to be a typical teen, graduate, go to college and become an adult."
It's important for Julie and Chris to recharge their batteries on a trip by themselves and they just got back from the Dominican Republic. And, the family eagerly awaits a move into their new home currently under construction.
Kate said she wants to be a therapist when she grows up. These parents laude Sesame Street since it debuted their first autistic character. They hope this will help educate parents and the general public.
"We want people to see Crews," Chris said quietly. "Not his diagnosis."
For more information on autism, go to Autism Speaks' website and Early Intervention Systems.