By Kelly Rayl
The Yuma Pioneer
April is Autism Awareness Month. “It’s important to us to let people know that there is help out there. You just have to keep strong and stay motivated, never give up,” Shayna Ruehle said.
Her son Zion Smith was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pica, a condition that causes cravings for non-edibles, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder when he was two years old.
When Zion was born to Shayna Ruehle and Josh Smith, things were pretty normal. Zion slept through the night, met all the typical baby milestones, but that’s as far as his development progressed. Zion just stopped. His pediatrician sent the family to a different hospital in Iowa called the Munroe Meyer Institute to find out what was going on.
“Zion’s diagnosis was quite a blow, we had no idea what kind of future our child could have.” said Shayna. Right away Zion began early access programs at an elementary school to give him a head start for Kindergarten.
Josh and Shayna found information on ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy. The ABA therapy programs can help increase language and communication skills, improve attention, focus and social skills, decrease problem behaviors, so they looked for a center near where they were living and were added to a waiting list. Three years passed and still no word of enrollment.
Zion made little progress. He did receive a helmet for his own safety. Zion bangs his head into walls and other things. There were holes in walls, fear of shattered glass.
Zion’s aggressive behavior has caused bloody noses. He hits and kicks, violently reacting to many different situations.
Zion had now turned five and his vocabulary is 10 words or less. He is still wearing a diaper because he has not learned to use the toilet. In fact the only way he was able to communicate a poopy diaper was to smear it all over. They have safety locks on doors because he runs away. Windows must be higher in their home so Zion doesn’t bang his head through the glass. Life was hard.
Zion has a little sister. Zenovia is four years old. Shayna and Josh also worry about her well being. Brother and sister would fight. “Not your typical fight, real knock down, drag out fights” said Shayna.
Life with Zion was feeling desperate.
Josh would search online for information, anything to help their son, their family. He ran across a story on the Yuma Pioneer website about construction of a new center in Yuma, Colorado that offered ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy. They also found a story about the Armstrong family and their son Mitch that had also been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Suddenly there was hope. They were so excited they started packing the very same day. They found a house that could accommodate the special needs of their son and planned a move to Yuma, Colorado.
Josh established a “Go Fund Me” account and Shayna sold decorated strawberries to help cover the costs of their move. “There were many generous contributions and lots of help from our family to make the move.” said Shayna.
The day after they arrived “The mattresses were still on the floor” said Shayna. “I headed to the Jeff Armstrong Memorial Center, Consultants for Children to apply for Zion’s enrollment. We didn’t even have a job yet.”
Zion started school in the Yuma School District, but it became apparent that he needed more.
The therapists at the JAM Center were very helpful with all the paperwork for enrollment. They were also able to do some extra evaluations to determine the adaptive behavior, find his strengths and weaknesses which is necessary to determine the amount of therapy hours covered by Medicaid. Most states have enacted autism insurance reform laws that require insurance carriers to provide coverage for autism treatment.
Zion now spends eight hours a day, Monday through Friday at the JAM Center.
He began ABA therapy in January of this year (2023) and has made amazing progress.
Zion can now go extended periods of time without a helmet. He is starting to talk. Instead of climbing on the counters in their home and making a mess, he can now say snack or the word treat. He has not learned to use the toilet yet, but no longer spreads poop all over. He now says bathroom or potty, but really he would just like to take a bath. Bath time has always made him feel better. He sometimes took a bath four times a day.
Zion can now put on his own pants, count to 15 or 20 depending on his mood and say almost 50 words. Hexagon has entered his vocabulary.
Hugs and kisses are now part of his daily behavior.
Zion’s violent reactions have significantly been reduced. In fact a fight over a swing between brother and sister ended with a hug. The memory brought tears to Shayna’s eyes as she described it.
“We really worry about making memories with both children, but Zion requires so much attention that we really mourn the time we have lost with our daughter,” said Shayna. “We have learned that taking the time to be afraid or grieve the things we have missed is important if not necessary.”
Not only has the JAM Center helped improve Zion’s behavior, but the entire family is receiving training to deal with Zion’s behavior.
“Zion is learning to share and we are given tools for building successful relationships. People in the community have been very kind.”
Zion cannot attend daycare and they are waiting for a spot to open in preschool for their daughter, so Josh has taken the responsibility as the “stay at home” parent. Shayna works as a bartender/waitress at Indian Hills Golf Course and as a commercial/household cleaning person. Josh hopes to have a job outside the home in the future and they both hope to do many every day things as a family, like eat at a restaurant, grocery shop, attend a community event. Zion’s behavior has kept them at home most of the time. Severe autism isolates people.
“Zion’s future felt like a black hole, we could not see a light at the end of the tunnel. Now we have different ideas of what his life can become. We have something to look forward to. A light at the end of the tunnel.”