April marks Autism Awareness Month. For the Naddeo family of Cherry Hill, N.J., bringing awareness to the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S. is a year-round mission.
Jennifer Morrison Naddeo, Cabrini College alumna, gave birth to twin sons on Oct. 23, 2003. Jonathan and Justin, five, were born three months premature, each weighing in at a little more than 2 pounds.
“They were in the Virtua West Jersey neonatal intensive care unit in Voorhees, N.J. Jon was in for two months and Justin was in for three months,” Naddeo said. During their three-month follow-up visit to the neo-natal clinic, the NICU doctor and physical therapist became concerned about the developmental progress of Justin.
“They [the doctors] didn’t know what it was, but advised that I call the early intervention group in my county. They did some testing, and approved Justin for occupational therapy,” Naddeo said.
After three months of occupational therapy with Justin, the therapist started to notice developmental delays with Jonathan as well. So, he was recommended for an early intervention evaluation and then, approved for therapy at 6 months of age.
Jonathan and Justin turned a year and a half and still didn’t have an official developmental diagnosis.
“Instead of getting diagnosis at that point, early intervention recommended that Justin start getting behavior therapy. After a few months, Jonathan began receiving behavior therapy. By the age of 3, both boys were receiving speech, occupational therapy, behavior therapy and educational therapy.” Naddeo said.
Along with behavioral issues, lack of communication also started to become a challenge for the Naddeo family. “I had two little boys screaming at me and I didn’t know what they wanted [to eat]. So I was just giving them anything to eat and they would get upset and throw it across the room,” Naddeo said.
At two and a half, Jonathan and Justin were both officially diagnosed with autism at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Toms River, NJ. The testing revealed that Justin had autism. Jonathan marked a 2.0 on the Autism Assessment Scale. “A 2.0 is considered a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder . He could have gone either way. So it’s such a fine line for Jonathan, but not a fine line for Justin,” Naddeo said.
Despite the diagnosis, Naddeo knew that both Jonathan and Justin’s quiet intellect wouldn’t be overshadowed.
“They are so clever; they try to dismantle things. They didn’t like the toddler beds. They would pull the mattress onto the floor, then they would take this little box spring, and Justin started pulling and releasing these coils holding together the other metal. They would sleep in the drawer under the bed” Naddeo said.
“Even when Jon was maybe three, three and a half and he saw a Leapster or computer game, he would begin playing. We would only need to show him the tough parts once. He doesn’t have issues with video games and is very social. It is really amazing.”
Naddeo is grateful for her sons’ talents and makes sure that Jonathan and Justin receive the attention they need to further their knowledge and live out active lives.
“My husband, Chris and I belong to PACT-Parents of Autistic Children Together-, a chapter of Autism Society of America. The thing we love about this organization is that they raise money to take people with autism and their families [ranging from two to adulthood] to many social activities such as bowling, Hershey Park, movies or a River Sharks Game. And what’s really nice is that my kids can have a tantrum, and nobody is saying ‘What is wrong with them?’ Autism is going to be the rest of our lives, especially for one of them and we need to have the boys learn what is appropriate in a safe environment.”
“We have gotten so involved. We speak with other families at functions, support group meetings and yahoo groups. We attend Autism N.J. conventions, where we meet with specialists in the field, learn the new advancements for our children and talk with them about what to do next,” Naddeo said.
Naddeo credits her Cabrini College education for keeping her so organized and optimistic.
“When I started at Cabrini, Dr. Zurek and Dr. Craigie told my class that college is what you make it and encouraged us to make a difference at the college. So I was extremely involved at Cabrini and on all sorts of boards. That helped me, because now I’m involved with all this stuff with the kids,” Naddeo said. Dr. Carter Craigie and Dr. Jerome Zurek contributed to the success of the communication department at Cabrini College. Craigie retired from Cabrini College in 1995 and Zurek continues to contribute to the college’s success.
The Naddeos’ pride for their boys and the family’s active involvement reaches far beyond a diagnosis that terrifies most unsuspecting parents.
“The one thing that I said when they were premature is ‘I’m not looking at them as rocket scientists. What I would like is for them to overcome any disability. I just want them to feel like ‘look at what I did’ and be happy,” Naddeo said.