He always seemed to be a few months behind other kids his age in reaching developmental milestones. As he grew, Sarah Dodson became increasingly worried. At 5 months, Hunter was not interested in trying solid foods. He wasn’t rolling over or even babbling. By 12 months he hadn’t taken his first steps.
Dodson’s friends and family encouraged her to stop worrying, suggesting that her son would catch up. Kids do things in their own time, they said. At 16 months, he started to walk, but he still wasn’t talking. Then his family noticed the rocking.
“He started to rock—a lot,” Dodson said. “He’d have a toy in each fist and rock back and forth on the couch. He still wasn’t at all interactive, and he wasn’t showing emotions and responding to pain. He’d fall sometimes, and it was like nothing happened.”
Worried about her son’s development, Dodson asked their pediatrician for advice on how to jump-start his communication skills.
“I asked if there was anything we could do to get him to start talking a little bit. You know, everyone wants to hear ‘mama and dada’ and ‘I love you.’ But we weren’t able to get anything out of Hunter at all,” Dodson said. “No babbling or any type of verbal communication. There was no speech at all.”
The behavior only worsened as the months went on. By 18-20 months, the rocking had become constant, and Hunter was still not eating solid foods, talking or playing with toys.
“I’d buy every toy at Walmart and just beg him to push one button, but he just didn’t have any interest in anything,” said Dodson, whose son starting developing more autism-like traits, including hand-slapping, after starting a First Steps program. “I realized I didn’t have the tools to help him. We had to do something else.
The struggle the Dodsons faced in finding help for Hunter is one felt by countless Hoosier families. Throughout Indiana and the United States, families of children showing signs of neurodevelopmental problems often struggle to get a confirming diagnosis early enough to access intervention services. This early intervention is imperative while the child’s brain is still in its most plastic phase of development. Without a medical diagnosis, these families are often unable to benefit from appropriate services.
As part of Indiana University School of Medicine’s Neurodevelopmental Behavioral System of Care, specialist physicians in developmental pediatrics train primary care providers throughout the state to recognize the signs of neurodevelopmental conditions so they can refer families for a formal evaluation. Early evaluation hubs throughout Indiana provide screening and diagnosis services and help families navigate local services to get the interventions each child needs.
Life-changing impact of diagnosis and support
When Hunter was 2 years old, a doctor treating the toddler for a chronic cough recommended an evaluation for autism. The Dodsons moved quickly, taking Hunter to see Jordan Huskins, MD, who diagnosed him with autism. Now, at the age of 3, Hunter is receiving a full range of support services near his home in Columbus, Indiana.
“I’m so glad I didn’t wait to have Hunter evaluated for autism. He was not talking, barely walking. We had no real life,” Dodson said. “Then he started ABA therapy specific to his autism, and he’s taken off like a rocket ship.”
According to Dodson, this therapy has opened the door for Hunter to experience the joys of childhood that once seemed out of reach for her son. Hunter now plays with his friends, and engages in activities and games. He’s verbal, saying words and singing songs. He recognizes his family and craves attention and opportunities for socialization. The early diagnosis and subsequent therapy, Dodson asserted, have been life changing for Hunter and his family.
“Hunter still struggles—there’s still a long way to go, but he’s a completely different child than he was 18 months ago. He’s not playing football or basketball or anything like that, but he likes to go to the park now and get away from just sitting and rocking,” Dodson said. “We’re a million miles from where we were before his diagnosis. Giving him tools when he was at an age that his brain is still developing—and manipulating his behaviors so he’s able to function properly when we go places—has been invaluable. It’s really made life so much easier for all of us.”