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Cole's family hopes his story of autism will raise awareness

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AITKIN — Bruce and Terra Wilcox of rural Aitkin work passionately every day to try to help their son Cole, who suffers from autism, have a better life.

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They have battled through all of Cole’s meltdowns, his aggressive behavior of hitting and kicking and have put up with the glares they receive from people when they are in public places.

They don’t want any sympathy from anyone. They love their son — who is loving, intelligent, charming and well-liked — and they would do anything for him. Talking about Cole, 13, who is a seventh-grader at Aitkin High School, is tough for the Wilcoxes — but they share their story to help the public have a better awareness about what autism is. And what better time to share their story than this month — Autism Awareness Month.

“I would like to see people have a better understanding of autism,” said Terra Wilcox. “When we are in the store with my son and he is making noises, I would like to see more acceptance. People glare at us and then look at him.”

The Wilcoxes said their son, who is unable to talk, has a low-functioning form of autism.

The family supports other families dealing with autism. Cole was one of two children who inspired the start of Cruisin’ for Autism in Minnesota (CAM’s Ride), eight years ago.

According to the National Autism Association, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social impairments, cognitive impairments, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors. It can range from very mild to very severe and occur in all ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females.

The Wilcoxes began to wonder if something was wrong with Cole when he was 18 months old. He still was not talking or saying any small words; he had poor eye contact; he never would point to anything; he didn’t respond by name; and he lacked pretend play. When he was at day care, he would walk along the fence line multiple times, in a pattern.

“We looked up all the symptoms he had on the Internet to see what we could find,” said Wilcox. “When we started to figure out what he had, the first thing that came to our mind was the movie ‘Rain Man.’”

In “Rain Man,” Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond, who has autism.

Cole saw doctors in Brainerd and the Twin Cities and was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

Bruce Wilcox said, “It was a little trying at first. Knowing that he would never catch up to his peers. That was tough ... but I had hope and I still have hope.”

“I had a hard time accepting Cole’s diagnosis and have a tough time talking about that,” said Terra Wilcox. “As a parent, you want the best for your kids and want your kids to be happy. I have a hard time thinking about Cole’s future. Many things parents of neuro-typical kids take for granted, I think. For example, prom, getting a driver’s license, getting a job, going to college, living on their own, getting married, having children of their own. Cole may not experience these milestones and as his mom, this makes me sad to think about that.”

Cole takes medications and sees occupational therapists to help him cope with autism. The Wilcoxes said the Aitkin School District has worked well with Cole.

Things at school were going well for Cole, up until the sixth grade. Bruce Wilcox said he began having a lot more meltdowns and being more aggressive during that school year.

“He was getting in trouble every day at school,” said Bruce Wilcox. “We were getting concerned. I ended up having to take a leave from my job during the summer to stay home with Cole. ... We were getting desperate for something. There was talk about institutionalizing him.”

Hope for Cole came that summer of 2013. The Wilcoxes learned about The Amazing Journey Therapy Center in Baxter. The center specializes in working with those with autism.

“Our goal was to have him evaluated and we wanted them to help Cole with his communication skills,” said Bruce Wilcox. “At first it didn’t go very well He kicked the lady who was there to evaluate him ... But then things got better and we realized that he had other needs that they had to take care of first to help Cole.”

The Wilcoxes said since Cole has been to the therapy center, Cole’s behavior has greatly improved. They said he went from having 48 behavior check marks to having three.

Kristin Dockter, a certified occupational therapy assistant, with The Amazing Journey has been working with Cole.

“Cole has made tremendous progress since starting with us in August of 2013,” said Dockter. “We’ve had the opportunity to discuss and implement treatment options with his parents and teachers who have helped Cole get through his daily routine more smoothly, allowing for Cole to be at a more optimal learning level, as well as to be more socially interactive. Cole has such a wonderful personality, and it’s great to be able to help him communicate more and to let that come shining through.”

Dockter said children diagnosed with autism often have difficulty in taking and processing the sensory information in their environment.

“They may take in too much information, for example, a light smell in a room might become a strong offensive odor; or a fluorescent light may be too bright and produce a loud hum they find obnoxious and distracting,” said Dockter. “Some kids may not receive enough proprioceptive input and thus feel as if they are weightless, leading to hyperactive energy and extraneous movements such as fidgeting or the inability to hold still for any length of time. Many of their senses are assaulted by incorrect stimuli all at once or they may not be receiving enough input.”

An occupational therapy team could assemble a treatment plan including a sensory diet, where a child is given activities and exercises addressing their particular sensory deficits, as well as home and clothing modifications, such as adding weights to clothing or removing tags or buttons. The diet also may address other areas the child may have difficulty completing or participating in. It gives the child’s body what it needs in order to function at its most optimal level.

Christa Lingl, owner of The Amazing Journey, said their goal this month is to help spread awareness of autism and other neurological disorders.

“We want to help educate our community on what autism is and what it looks like (the signs and symptoms),” said Lingl. “We want people to know there is an abundance of autism in our own community. ... A few years ago Pine River was known to have one of the highest rate populations in the state. We want to share the services available here in our community, and much more.”

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl.

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