Climbing Caleb’s Mountain
by Cynthia L. Simmons
Have you ever eaten razor blades for breakfast? That describes the agony I felt raising a severely disabled child.
I homeschooled my four children when I discovered I carried my fifth child on Mother’s Day 1991. Terrified I couldn’t handle any more responsibility, I prayed for a quiet baby.
Caleb was born a few days after Christmas. He seldom cried and never spoke, but he didn’t need to. If he made a noise of any kind, his four siblings rushed to help him, offering him anything he could possibly desire.
He developed slowly, but he responded to us and appeared contented. At fifteen months, he had two tonic-clonic seizures in one day, and I took him to the emergency room. All his medical tests came back normal, and the doctor put him on seizure medication.
At four, he still didn’t talk or make eye contact. However, another behavior alarmed me. Caleb would lie on his back for hours while rotating large toys with his hands and feet. I mentioned the odd movements to his neurologist. The doctor shrugged it off and said Caleb was developmentally delayed, common for kids who experienced seizures.
Not content with the neurologist’s opinion, my husband and I consulted a friend. Dr. Westcott had a PhD in developmental psychology. He spent some time with Caleb and suggested I homeschool him and address his delays. At this point, I began to pray for Caleb to talk.
However, when I attempted to teach Caleb to pronounce words, I had to endure his blood-curdling screams. He couldn’t do what I asked or even pay attention. If I held his face in my hand, almost touching his nose, he could listen about four seconds before he pulled away and shrieked. Some days he appeared to make progress, but other days he recalled nothing we’d already covered. Plus, he struggled to do the simplest tasks. For example, when I taught my other children to count, I’d pick up blocks and say the number (i.e. one, two, three). However, Caleb couldn’t do those two activities at the same time. Picking up the blocks presented a challenge, and repeating numbers in order presented an impossible task. He smacked his face and called himself stupid. Writing presented just as many issues because he couldn’t hold a pencil. Later, he reversed the shapes; some left to right, some top to bottom. I ached for him. Many days I hovered just inside my bedroom door praying, delaying the trauma of watching him struggle and cry.
When my son was six, a neuropsychiatrist administered complete testing, but the two-paragraph diagnosis horrified me. Several years later, the doctor put Caleb on the autism spectrum. However, the new diagnosis depressed me for months. Later, we discovered other neurological and developmental problems often come with autism, and boys are four times more likely to receive the diagnosis than girls.
Despite Caleb’s many barriers, my husband and I decided to address the problem at home. We told him we named him for Caleb, the Jewish spy who believed the children of Israel could take the Promised Land. Later, the biblical Caleb climbed a mountain and conquered the giants the other ten spies feared. Our Caleb had his own mountain, but with God’s help we would climb it with him. Fortunately, scientific research gave us lots of options.
I found an occupational therapist who agreed to work with me. She saw him several times a month, and I continued the recommended activities. A friend connected me with a school in Virginia where I took master’s degree level classes to address Caleb’s needs.
Armed with a complete understanding of Caleb’s problems and a huge set of educational tools, I taught with growing confidence. I addressed his underlying neurological issues first and then moved to academics. My oldest son made a simple balance beam for coordination and a huge swing to hang in the garage. Caleb’s school day included spinning in the swing and exercises on the balance beam. Using masking tape, I made a circle on the living room floor. He loved walking around the circle or stepping inside or outside on command. Also, I rubbed Caleb’s arms and legs with lotion or a soft brush to integrate his neurological system. We dug letters out of sand and practiced saying the sound. Together we made letters and numbers with cookie dough. Once, when we baked together, he rubbed the flour on his arms and asked if God liked it when we were happy.
Over time, Caleb inched forward. We celebrated the day he could count to ten and the day he could write his first name. He started reading after his therapist began music therapy. When I discovered his fascination with the presidents, I purchased books so he could learn more about them. That improved his reading. History became another way to open his mind. He enjoyed studying wars too, and I found movies he could watch to learn more. His ability to listen improved, so I bought tapes on American history because he liked hearing about people from the past. I came to realize he had to overlearn before he truly understood a new skill. As he grew older, his therapist and I focused on life skills so he could achieve as much independence as possible. Each day I poured in as much as I could.
Looking back, I thought he’d never mature, but today at twenty-six, he can cook simple meals, wash his own clothes, and works part-time at a local plumber. Plus he continues to learn and loves to research the presidents on the internet. We are thankful for friends who prayed when we were discouraged, for professionals who worked with us, and for God’s unfailing love as we climbed Caleb’s mountain.
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