My Pulse News

Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Losing is winning

By Ethan Nahté

April is designated as World Autism Month, beginning with United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on Saturday, April 2.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), a sampling of 8-year-old children living in 11 areas of the United States during 2018 show that 2.3% landed on the autism spectrum, 23 children per every thousand. The boys outnumbered the girls almost 4 to 1, with 3.7% versus 0.9%. The disorder does not seem to be more prevalent among race/ethnicity. Autism spectrum disorder is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States. ASD is more common than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.

There are several Polk County residents who are on the spectrum. Some of them you may know and never suspect. Others might be more noticeable, but that does not mean that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) cannot function in regular society.

A prime example is 10-year-old Drew Mabry, who will be 11 in April. Drew is the 2022 Polk County Spelling Bee champion.

The son of Jennifer and Leo Mabry, Drew, is a creative child who appears to have a positive outlook, along with a few awards to his name. His knowledge and talents do not make him unique, but Drew’s accomplishments might be considered a mountain climbed by some.

Jennifer first suspected something was “going haywire” when Drew was about 11 months old. His father did not want to accept it.

Leo, a SPED (special education) teacher at Acorn High School, said, “One of my best friends, who is like a brother to me, started making little suggestions, because he works with special needs kids up in northwest Arkansas. I didn’t want to hear it, because when it comes to your son or your daughter…”

Jennifer said, “He had been an educator for so long, he knows what happens in the school districts. We have good school districts. I’m not trying to put them down, but parents need to know it’s a fight to make sure you have what your child needs. It is your responsibility as a parent to go in and advocate for your child and for the children coming up after them.

“We hope that we’ve made such a difference that it’s not just Drew that’s been successful, but that we’ve opened pathways that schools are thinking about the children coming behind him; that all of them are educated. There are things you can do besides sticking them in a room and saying that they didn’t cry today, so they were successful. How about they didn’t cry that day and they learned a letter, or they learned how to hold a pencil and make a triangle? Let’s come up with real goals.”

 “That are applicable in real life,” Leo added.

“Drew’s in a regular gen ed classroom. He does have an aid, a paraprofessional, that goes with him everywhere, for now.” Jennifer said, describing Drew’s school day.

ASD Assessment

“The other thing that can’t be discounted is the amazing people along the way,” Leo said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Jennifer said, “We need to say that De Queen-Mena Education Service Cooperative—the early preschool program, the ABC program—that team and those people are the early interventionalist. Every one of them should be applauded. It’s the silent group that nobody even knows exists. They screen all the children coming in for preschool if they’re going to go to a public preschool.

“People ask, ‘How do I get started? They’re only three.’ Go to the preschool and ask them to do an educational analysis. Tell them you suspect autism. They’ll start doing assessments.

“Those assessments are what we took when we went to the hospital. We went in with a whole folder and videos of what Drew was doing. Dennis Developmental Center is the branch of Arkansas Children’s Hospital that does diagnosis for autism and other things. You’ve got to have three: A psychologist, a pediatric and a speech pathologist that all agree it’s autism. Our De Queen-Mena Educational Cooperative speech pathologist at the time was Mandy. She was on standby. She said if we got there and needed a speech path to sign off on it, she would agree to that.”

When Jennifer took Drew in to be assessed with the preschool, she was in there all of five minutes before Drew had what she termed a total and complete meltdown. They called her back in, said they would have to officially complete their assessment, but they could already tell Drew was severely autistic. They didn’t know what his future would look like, but they were ready to get him the help he required.

They developed a plan. Drew could only attend preschool the first half of the day. He was not potty-trained and would not potty train, could not use a public toilet. Several people from therapists to behavioralists came into the Mabry’s lives to assist and train.

Making A Difference

Leo said, “Most people don’t realize that just speaking and putting a little effort can make a lifelong difference to a momma or daddy that’s at wit’s end. Just having somebody that cares. Somebody that will listen or make you believe that you’re not crazy.”

“You do feel like you’re kind of lost,” Jennifer said.

Drew smiled and said, “That’s when I met Miss Bohlman. She treats me like I’m her favorite person. She was my first-grade teacher.”

Amanda Bohlman, the Adaptive Educational Service (AES) teacher at Acorn was also Drew’s kindergarten teacher. He also had assistance from his aide, Tracy McPherson.

Leo said, “These people made lifelong changes just because they cared and were willing to listen.”

“When Drew gets to graduation, we want those people to know they didn’t just change that moment. They were literally a step in changing Drew’s life,” Jennifer said. “He went from not talking, not functioning, to he’s just pretty chill and pretty cool with us all the time.”

Jennifer Mabry is on the board of PCDC, BASE of the Ouachitas (Building, Accepting, Supporting, Educating), and AAROC (The Arkansas Autism Resource & Outreach Center), and vice-president of all three. She currently works as an executive assistant at Rich Mountain Electric Cooperative, after spending four years with the Ouachita River School District, where her husband Leo teaches.

Leo was LEA (Local Education Agency) during the 2020-2021 school year but resigned. He was also the SPED supervisor in addition to teaching six periods of special education, which combined, got to be overwhelming.

LEA is over the special education and how funds should be distributed to salaried employees and for the children’s needs. It’s Leo’s fourth year working in special education. He has taught literacy, English, and in several other fields throughout his 16-year career.

Leo said, “With special education, it requires heart and patience that I never knew existed inside of me. These kids are amazing. With Drew’s diagnosis and what we’ve gone through with our son, it opens up the possibilities of what children with special needs can do. Often times the expectations are set pretty low for individuals with disabilities.

Jennifer said, “We set the bar super high and see where he lands and not limit him.”

Leo said, “We were told numerous times that our son would probably be always self-contained; that our son would never be able to speak. We pushed and we kept looking for numerous resources. We wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. You see what the reality is now with our son.

“Where I think so many people miss with our message is that there’s hope. Just because your current situation is this, doesn’t mean that’s what it’s going to look like tomorrow. There’s always hope. When you have someone who is such an inspiration as our son, who was told ‘You’re not going to be able to do these things,’ and now he’s competed in the state spelling bee. Every spelling bee he’s ever been in, whether it’s his grade or the grade above, and now he’s competing at the highest level in the state, that’s hope.”

Spelling Champ

The competition was held at the Arkansas 4-H Center in Little Rock, March 5. Approximately 61,500 students from 393 schools in 56 counties across Arkansas competed to whittle it down to the final 52 students.

Drew studied hard with his mom, learning 3,000 words that might potentially appear during the spelling bee.

“It wasn’t like the stress that I’ve dealt with before,” Drew said. “It felt different.”

Drew’s Spelling Bee Stats:

  •  Kindergarten – First place
  •  First Grade – First place + third place for second grade
  •  Second Grade – First place
  •  Third Grade – First place
  •  Fourth Grade – First place for fourth, fifth and sixth grade + second place for seventh grade
  •  Fifth Grade – First place for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade + overall Polk County Spelling Bee winner

“I made it all the way to the seventh grade in the fourth grade. This year I won the whole Polk County Spelling Bee,” Drew said with a proud smile.

He finished 12th in state out of 52 competitors.

“I was the first one there and the last to spell,” Drew said.

The Arkansas-Democrat Gazette interviewed Drew after the spelling bee, which Drew enjoyed. He said, “I saw one of my coaches at the school, we were in the parking lot at Walmart, and we talked. Eventually, I reached a point where I said, ‘That interview felt good, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the last one.’”

His parents laughed, teasing about how humble is.

ABA Therapy

Jennifer said, “We’re just proud that he got up there because of things we were told he would never be able to do. Drew was extreme severe in the beginning of our diagnosis. In preschool, he is the reason the preschool room had to install locks and a bell. He made it all the way out to the parking lot. He’s a runner. He had no speech. He could not sit on the carpet with his peers. Drew would sit in a laundry basket. He could not keep his body still. We have done over thirty-five hundred hours of ABA therapy in our home.”

ABA is Applied Behavior Analysis. Some of the issues it approaches in a manner that is unique to each person are goal behaviors to increase language and communication skills; improving attention, focus, social skills, memory and academic; decreasing problem behaviors, all with positive reinforcement.

Jennifer said, “The sooner the child can be diagnosed; the sooner the parent thinks there’s something going on—it was a real big struggle to say there’s something wrong with your child. It’s also a struggle to have people analyze them and tell you horrible things you don’t want to hear about your own child.”

The Mabry’s heard things like “severely delayed” or “mentally retarded.”

Leo said, “That hits in your heart, because to you, your child is perfect.”

Jennifer said, “There’s so many cool things about him. He can do all of this, but he was delayed in so many areas. There is a program, when you finally do receive a medical diagnosis, that is the Arkansas Partnership Waiver Program. It does therapy in the home. You have to qualify for it before the child turns five. They train the parents how to do ABA therapy.”

Arkansas Autism Partnership is the Medicaid waiver program for young children with autism between the ages of 18 months and 8 years.

“Because of that, Leo, besides teaching special education, is a lead therapist for that program in the state,” Jennifer said. “They have fought in legislature for tons of years to get it passed through. Arkansas is actually one of the best states to live in if you do have an autism diagnosis. They have one of the most forward thinking for children with disabilities for 911 that you can set up. You can list a child’s disability, what they might look like, you update a picture every year, so if a call goes out to dispatch, they are supposed to be told that this is a registered child with a disability so when they go to a home, this is what you can expect. This is what their dog looks like. This is what their cars look like.”

Leo said, “Here’s the reality. We’re looking at statistics that were once one in one hundred – sixty kids would be diagnosed to one in forty will be diagnosed with some form of autism. This is the new reality. Who knows why? Regardless of the why, this is the reality the schools and communities will be facing. It’s not just something we can turn a blind eye to.”

Writing Success

Jennifer said, “We need to incorporate them into doing more things. They have such a heightened sensitivity to certain things. They can be a big asset to the community as a whole. There are things they can do, but they might not be able to do certain things. If the community can embrace that and find ways to actually employ people. They’re not a burden on society because we’re not having to pay their way. That’s part of my push with PCDC. It’s a sheltered workshop for those who can’t work out in the public. There’s actually a program in PCDC where if the community would hire, there are people who could work certain hours.

“We want Drew to be successful. We push him.”

When asked what his vision for the future is, Drew replied, “I don’t want to hurry myself, honestly.”

A couple of possibilities may include becoming a writer or artist. There is a video of Drew reading his short story “Amazing Andrew: The Wheels Fall Off” and displaying the accompanying art on the Arkansas PBS kid’s page https://www.myarkansaspbs.org/kids/writerscontest/2020/amazing_andrew_-_the_wheels_fall_off/. Drew won first place in the third grader category in 2020

“It was pretty fun. I actually did something I had never done before and I ended up winning.”

Drew’s superhero story stars the Amazing Andrew battling the Hypnotizer. It includes his parents and 8-year-old sister Vee as characters at the mercy of the villain.

He’s now working on a new short story, “The Amazing Andrew: The Great Spell Off,” influenced by his recent activities.

Jennifer said, “He’s going to try and compile several short stories and I’m going to see if I can get it published. He is super funny all the time. He has an amazing sense of humor. He doesn’t even mean to be funny… .”

Losing Is Winning

His father asked Drew what his message is with the new book since he didn’t win the state championship. Drew replied, “Losing is winning. Once you’ve already got on that stage, you know, you’ve won the entire Polk County Spelling Bee just to get here. To get on that stage and compete against fifty-two other people, that takes a lot of guts.”

Jennifer said, “It was a good experience overall. There were so many good people there. Their judges were so kind. What was really amazing, of course they didn’t say it out loud, we felt like probably half of the kids in the State Spelling Bee were probably on the spectrum at some point. There was a difference. We think they’re not the disabled. We think they’re the very abled.”

Artist

Drew reads all the time. He enjoys books such as “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen and the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey.

“Dav Pilkey is his favorite,” Jennifer said. “He likes graphic novels.”

Leo said, “He taught himself how to draw all the characters. Now he’s able to draw a lot of his own illustrations for The Amazing Andrew.”

Vee said, “In the back of the book [‘Dog Man’] it shows you how to draw everything, so he’s learned how to draw them.”

“We actually removed Drew from kindergarten,” his mom said, “in the first month because he was the only kid who didn’t have anything going to the fair for artwork. We fought and fought. He is capable. We need [the school] to push him to do what everybody else is doing. They just said that he hates art. He’s never going to draw. He’s never going to like it. Now, Drew loves to draw all the time.”

Drew said just before they came to the Pulse office, “I was drawing on my easel a poster of the face of Venom and an angry Mario face.”

Achieving Goals

Jennifer said. “His very first session of ABA, they looked across and said, ‘What is it that you want most as a parent?’ We wanted him to interact and play with his sister. His first goal was thirty seconds of interaction with his sister.”

“He used to hate me,” Vee said.

Granted, that’s a bit of a universal feeling between siblings. Jennifer clarified, “He didn’t acknowledge she existed in the room. They had no interaction whatsoever… We worked for a month to get thirty seconds of interaction.”

Leo said, “It’s work. Most people don’t understand that.”

“There is no magic fix,” Jennifer said. “It’s a constant push for the next thing. It’s a constant being aware of what’s coming up next for him and planning for the next thing. He has severe allergies. He has twelve different food allergens.

“We’ve done a huge diet change. That’s a big part of it. When Drew eats certain things, that makes the autism worse. Diet plays an extreme part in his health and his ability to function. Your gut is your second brain. If you don’t control what’s going into it, then your brain’s not going to be able to function. You’re already neurologically not able to push out the toxins that a normal human body does. It settles in there and that’s when you start getting the toxicity that affects you neurologically. People don’t realize there is such a tie together.”

The family not only pays attention to Drew’s needs, but has a network of friends who have someone with something not deemed “normal,” yet they look beyond that.

Jennifer said, “We’re the family that has tried to really focus on seeing people and their diseases, and what is going on. We really try to, not just superficially say, ‘Oh, it’s so terrible for you,’ but see if there is something we can do to lend a helping hand.”

Leo said, “It’s weird, because the more that you serve and the more that you open your heart, you start to see people differently. We have a friend that, her daughter, has a lot of facial things going on. It’s amazing how your perception will change, as you serve, and you start to understand.”

“You forget that,” Jennifer said.

Leo said, “You don’t see the outward stuff. You start to see the beauty on the inside. That’s what, as a teacher, is my job to see the beauty and the potential on the inside, regardless of the behaviors and all these other things people call limitations. That’s what we want for Drew. We don’t want people to see the autism.”

Jennifer said, “That was the thing when we went to the State Spelling Bee. We planned it ahead so we could tour the facility; see where he was going to stand on the stage. You have to frontload the situation, so he knows what to expect. Once he gets in there, he’s cool, and can run the gamut of what you’re asking him to do. He knows what he needs to expect to get in there.

“We told them, once we went through the walk-through, that we wanted the rest of the competition to not be about Drew’s autism. Sometimes it’s ‘Drew, the one with the autism.’ Sometimes, we just want it to be Drew, and nobody know. When we go on vacations, we try and limit how many times we say autism, because we want to see how he’s doing in the world without them saying ‘Oh, he’s got this.’”

Leo said, “Plus, the world doesn’t always accommodate. It should. The federal laws are out there and in place, but just because the laws are there doesn’t mean they’re always going to be followed.”

Interaction

Drew said, “We’re doing this thing in my bedroom called The Hot Wheels Grand Prix. I have all these tracks my cars can race on. One of them was built from scratch.” He races with his sister, and they act like they’re performing on YouTube.

Vee said she helps her brother act like a regular child. “If he can see other children playing regular, I can see that.” She mentioned another playmate who has improved a lot in similar circumstances and interacting. Vee added, “Drew is obsessed with dancing. He dances all the time.”

His mom said, “He loves to sing and dance.”

“When I won the Polk County Spelling Bee, I literally did a toe touch,” Drew said.

“Even when he had no words,” his mom said, “we could always communicate with music. He loves music, he plays piano, he has almost perfect pitch, he’s excellent at singing and a pretty good little dancer.

His father added, “He’s amazing at kick boxing.”

Leo demonstrated how Drew originally began punching, with his fists curled in beneath his wrists, explaining how many of the autistic kids have neurological issues, but now has gotten his punches down properly.

Leo said, “I think just because things don’t come easily to some individuals with autism, doesn’t mean they can’t get it. We [people] give up so quickly. Those things that are different, we often don’t embrace those.

“When you’re around individuals on the spectrum, it doesn’t take long to pick up on those differences.”

Jennifer named several people, children and adults, with ASD, stating,”…there are a ton of people in the Mena area who are autistic, and most people don’t realize it.”

Leo said, “We’re down certified educators in the state. We need qualified educators, especially special educators. I know every meeting I go to, I’m the only male and I look around, and most of these amazing ladies are in the late 50s and 60s. What happens when we can’t fill those roles? These babies need loving, caring individuals who can bring forth all the amazing things inside of them. I know from my son has been able to do that every one of these kids can be amazing if they just have someone that can see it. They’re smart. They just learn things differently.”

Drew’s creativity doesn’t end there. He also wants to direct movies, or possibly become a Foley artist.

Near-Divorce

The time, dedication, and stress can take a toll. Jennifer said, “We truly know what it feels like that there’s no hope and you’re drowning. Leo and I were almost divorced over it. He refused to allow Drew to be called that, not allowing him to be labeled. We just had to do something to get him help.

“I was struggling, then I found out I was pregnant [with Vee] and I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t imagine having another child and dealing with that on top of what I was dealing with.”

Many parents blame themselves, but parents do not and cannot cause ASD. Although the multiple causes of ASD are not known, it is known that parental behavior before, during and after pregnancy does not cause ASD.

Jennifer said, “Of course, Vee has been the best thing in the whole world. God had a plan. That’s why she’s here, because He knew what Drew was going to need before we knew what Drew was going to need, and they’re the best of friends.

“I told Leo I just remember we were about in divorce, and I felt like I just could not go another day. I just felt like if I hadn’t had him, he wouldn’t be suffering, we wouldn’t be in this situation, I had personally done something wrong by choosing to have children. I can remember praying, ‘God, if You will give me the ability to help him, I swear I will tell every soul that ever asks me, I will share anything they’ll ever want, I will personally pour myself out if You will just make it where he can function.’

“It was after that when things really did change. We really started pushing. It’s hard work. It’s setbacks sometimes. There are times it doesn’t feel like we’re stepping forward, but somehow, the next step comes, and the next person that cares, comes along and help us. We want to be those people for the people coming up behind us.”

“And there’s going to be more of them,” Leo said.

Scars

Drew said, “I believe autism is just like, yesterday, we learned this song called ‘Under your Scars.’ The people who made this song have this Scars Foundation. They help disabled children—”

The song and Scars Foundation are the brainchild of Sully Erna and the band Godsmack to help raise awareness of the mental health issues that so many are faced with today.

“People who have thoughts of suicide and addiction,” his mom added.

“People like me.” Drew said. “I think that’s really huge, because they’re also trying to step in and say, ‘Hey, we want to help, too.’ They don’t want to be there and say, ‘Hey, that’s terrible for you guys.’ They want to help.”

Drew thinks he’s been able to help other people, although he admits, his own journey has not been easy.

“In my perspective, I actually had a lot of fun, but I also had a little bit of frustration. It’s not like I can remember all of my early years.”

He does not feel like children with autism are different from other children. “They just have a scar that everyone wants to make fun of. Scars are like things you get in battles, and you just have to embrace them, because there’s beauty behind those scars.”

Vee agreed you have to have patience if you are a sibling who has an autistic brother or sister, “You stay with them, even if you get bored, you stay and maybe you can learn something, too.”

There are times when Drew may not explain the rules of a game or that something might be dangerous that his sister will explain or show things to him, helping to protect her brother.

When asked by his parents who defines us, as a person, Drew answered, “God, the Guy who built us from dirt. The Guy who placed the clouds in the sky perfectly. The Guy who has already planned the future for me perfectly.”

Right now, the family’s future is planning for a fun time once school is out. Besides deciding which direction to take his superhero story, Drew has plans for riding rollercoasters with his family this summer. He’s waiting to ride the fastest, most thrilling rollercoaster available with seven inversions.


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