Raising Joel: Parenting a Complex Child
On an average day, you can find Joel Serrano pedaling through his neighborhood, climbing a jungle gym and informing those around him everything there is to know about Minecraft. Just like any other seven-year-old boy, right? But at about two or three years old, his parents noticed there was something different about him.
“We first noticed that he would not come in contact with us, and that he was a very fussy eater. There were things that he did love, though, like water,” Jessica explains. “Whenever we would try and take him away from water, or anything he liked, he would always have a meltdown.” These meltdowns included anything from screaming, kicking, resisting, and balling up his fists.
Concerned for their son’s well being, the Serranos reached out to Joel’s doctor looking for an answer to how they could help their son. “Before he started school, we talked to our doctors and asked them if there was anywhere we could bring him so he could be observed, and they suggested the Emerge Center.” Jessica explains. “We brought him to The Emerge Center in Baton Rouge where Joel was tested for autism, but at the time, he did not show enough characteristics to be diagnosed.”
The time was drawing near for Joel to begin preschool, but unfortunately, the Serranos were still unsure of what was going on with their son. Would Joel need extra help in the classroom? What resources would be available to him? Once more, the Serranos jumped into action to find answers.
Joel went on to attend preschool, but it wasn’t long after that his teacher began expressing concerns regarding Joel’s behavior. Joel was also having temper tantrums at school. Jessica recalls, “She asked if he was on medication because she noticed that his reactions to certain things weren’t normal reactions.”
With some of their concerns being confirmed through Joel’s teacher, the Serranos knew there was something unique about their son, and so they continued to push the issue and researched places they could bring Joel for more testing.
Taylor Gilbert, LCSW at Goodwood Counseling, notes how important it is that parents or caregivers trust their instincts. “If you think your child may need help, there is no harm in reaching out. Part of our job as mental health professionals is to help determine what may be appropriate and concerning behavior. When determining whether there may be a problem in a child’s behavior, it’s important to consider how the behavior matches the child’s developmental level, the intensity of the behavior, and the duration of the behavior. The key is to identify how significantly the issues are interfering with the child and family’s functioning.”
Eventually, the Serranos were able to have Joel tested once more through Pupil Appraisal in Baton Rouge where Joel was diagnosed with developmental delay.
Once he was diagnosed, Joel’s doctor recommended that he begin speech and occupational therapy where he had to relearn several things including how to hold a pencil and how to properly groom himself.
After the birth of Joel’s younger sister, Davina, and after hearing great things about Livingston’s education system, the family moved, and Joel started kindergarten. It was also around that time that Joel began seeing a psychiatric doctor who informed the Serranos that Joel was on the autism spectrum. Joel was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). ODD is a childhood disorder that is characterized by negative, defiant, disobedient, and often hostile behavior towards adults or authority figures. However, kindergarten for Joel, was an improvement from his preschool experience.
Jessica explains, “Kindergarten was okay for Joel. There were a few meltdowns and a few calls here and there, but his teacher also had a child on the autism spectrum so she knew how to work with him. However, when he went to first grade, everything went downhill, especially after the flood.”
Just like adults, children can be affected by change. For Joel, a change in his routine can throw him completely off balance. After such a traumatic event and Joel not being able to return to school until September because of it, things were definitely different for the family. Not to mention, the family and Joel’s doctor were still trying to find the right medication for him. “Things started spiraling then. He would get sad notes sent home and he would get in trouble to the point where he was once suspended,” Jessica shares.
However, both Gilbert and the Serranos agree that if Joel were to have had an earlier intervention, things could have gone a lot differently for the family. Gilbert shares, “Early intervention is very important when it comes to identifying and treating childhood behavior disorders. The earlier you can identify a problem and intervene, the sooner you can provide resources and services to help a child, and his or her family, succeed.”
Jessica further explains how an earlier intervention is key to success, “I think if Joel would have had an earlier intervention, things probably would have been different. Now, he’s seven years old and we’re still trying to go through behavior therapy. I think it’s going to be a longer road than if he would have gotten an earlier intervention at two or three years old.”
While Joel’s actions are expressing one emotion, he can be feeling an entirely different emotion. Jessica explains, “He doesn’t know how to communicate his emotions. When he gets mad or frustrated, it just comes out as bad behavior. Even when he is happy, he yells because he doesn’t know how to channel those emotions. The biggest misconception about children on the spectrum is that their behavior is just bad behavior. People will look at you like, ‘Can you not control your child?’ I hate when I get those looks because they don’t know what’s really going on,” she adds.
But when there is a behavioral issue, Jessica shares that Joel’s disabilities play a role in the way he should be disciplined. “When he does something wrong, we have tried explaining it to him, but he’s not the kind of child that, when he does something bad in school, you can just send him home with punish work. He’s not going to know what he did wrong or why he did it,” Jessica says. “He needs to have the consequence when the action happened.”
The Serranos met with Joel’s school several times without any real improvement. “It felt like we were pushing autism and the school was pushing that it was just a behavioral issue that we were not handling at home. It made us feel like we were doing something wrong,” says David. A feeling of hopelessness eventually began to hang over the family like a cloud, and soon enough the stress began to take its toll on both Jessica and David.
“I didn’t have an appetite. I was getting through postpartum depression, and when that went away and this started, I began having anxiety that would lead to panic attacks, something I’ve never had before,” Jessica shares. David also recalls the trying time and shares that he remembers Jessica often calling him at work in tears because of the difficult time. The couple both lost weight due to the stress, and David’s work performance declined.
What made things even more frustrating for the family is that the behavior the school was seeing was not the same behavior Joel was displaying at home. The final straw for the family came when Jessica discovered that one day at school, Joel was banging his head on his desk and was put into seclusion for it, and no one notified her until two days later.
Jessica and David made the hard decision to begin homeschooling Joel in January. “I didn’t pull him out for the heck of it. I did it for him,” Jessica says. “We want to find the right school for him that offers the right services.” And luckily, the Serranos may find just what they’re looking for in a new school opening in Baton Rouge that specializes in students on the autism spectrum.
“We just recently found out that they’re opening a school called NHS Autism Center. We’re going to attend the open house and cross our fingers that we can get him enrolled. They would have all the therapy and the educational services he needs under one roof,” Jessica says with relief.
Throughout the difficult times, however, the Serranos have had one major support system to rely on: their family. “We’re from New York, so we don’t have a lot family here. My mom is here and has helped, but there has been a lot of phone calls to other family members or to my cousin in Florida who knows all too well what we were going through,” explains Jessica.
And finally, things are starting to look up for the family. Joel is very much an active child with a variety of interests, and if he sees other kids having fun, he wants to be having fun, too. The Serranos have also discovered a simple solution to working through Joel’s emotional outbursts: redirection. “He is very easily redirected. If he wants to play with a specific thing, we explain to him why he cannot play with it right now and ask, ‘How about we play with this instead?’ And then, he moves on to that,” explains Jessica.
Throughout their struggle of bringing some calm to their family life, David and Jessica learned a lot, especially a new level of patience. However, one thing they both learned that sticks out to them the most is: Never judge a book by its cover. For other families going down similar paths, the Serranos encourage others to not give up, especially not on their children. “It’ll only make you stronger. Also, find a center that will allow you to get some type of support and to create a network of resources because you can’t do this by yourself,” says David.
Jessica adds, “That’s why we decided we wanted to put this out there, because if we can even help just one family who may be going through what we’re going through, then at least we’ve helped somebody.” ■