Malmstrom family tackles autistic challenges

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dillon White
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
He could recite entire scenes from the movies "Cars" and "Harry Potter," but he could not tell someone his name or how old he was. He has an intense interest with spiders and has no fear of heights. 

David is autistic. 

Staff Sgt. Laurie Kidwell, 341st Medical Operations Squadron, discovered her child was autistic more than a year ago when she returned from a deployment. 

"We started noticing he was autistic when he was 1 1/2 years old," the NCO in charge of public health said. "He had a complete lack of fear, especially for heights. We went hiking in Glacier National Park and stopped at lookouts. When most kids would have a natural fear of heights, he would walk right up to the edge." 

One day David climbed on the kitchen table and was about to jump off when Sergeant Kidwell grabbed him, she said. 

"We had to have an eye on him at all times. It was nerve racking -- constant fear he was going to hurt himself because he had no fear," she said. 

The 4 1/2 year old is also an escape artist, defeating latches, locks and deadbolts after watching grown-ups open them. 

"There was no way to keep him contained. We were in constant fear he was going to hurt himself or get out of the house," she said. "Safety concerns are huge for autistic kids. High-functioning autistic children are also very smart and determined." 

The Kidwell's first child had none of these behaviors, and it was a struggle for the family to figure out how to keep David safe and learn what to expect. When they arrived at Malmstrom, the family first thought David had obsessive compulsive disorder. 

"We took David to a preschool screening at Quality of Life Concepts, . They immediately noticed it." 

The staff at QLC noticed autistic traits in David and the family then brought him to a pediatric developmentalist in Billings, Mont., to be diagnosed. 

Once the family knew David was autistic, they needed to do something about it. Tricare covered the cost of David's diagnosis, but Applied Behavior Analysis, an autism treatment covered by Tricare, which is now available in Montana, was not available at the time. 

The Kidwell's did find another program provided by Easter Seals that was not covered by Tricare, but that the Air Force could still help cover. 

"I called Air Force Aid, and this is awesome," Sergeant Kidwell said. "They offered to pay for three months until we could find some other source of aid."

Sergeant Kidwell called every state agency she could think of to help her pay for the expensive monthly treatment, she said. 

"Montana Children's Mental Health approved to pay for an additional four months of the 12-month program," she said. "They also helped with travel expenses to Billings, [where the treatment facility was located]." 

Following the monthly sessions and at-home interventions, David went from not talking and not interacting with people to interacting and having two-way conversations. 

"His prognosis now is pretty good," Sergeant Kidwell said. "I think he should be able to be integrated in a regular school and hopefully go to college." 

The at-home intervention program was less costly than hiring a professional to be with David at all times, but it was difficult, Sergeant Kidwell said. 

"Autistic children don't like changes in their routine," she said. "My husband, who does most of the intervention work, forced him to change his routine by going to stores, taking him to places where he had to be social -- everything that comes naturally to most children, he had to be taught." 

The hard work was worth it, she said. It's the difference between him going into a group home and him going through college and living independently. 

The Kidwell's applied for a humanitarian permanent change of station and received orders to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to live in an area with more services and schools to provide care and support for David. 

Sergeant Kidwell said families with loved ones who are autistic should find out what services are available at their forwarding base, find contacts at the base through the base's special needs identification and assignment coordinator to know what programs are available in the area. If there is not sufficient support, they need to let the SNIAC at their current base know about the problem. 

"We try our best to provide the care people need," said Capt. Anthony Wilson, 341st Medical Operations Squadron family advocacy officer and SNIAC. "If it doesn't work, we make the Air Force aware they are not getting the care they need and they need to go somewhere else. The last thing a commander or first sergeant wants is for their troops to be here while their families are not being taken care of. They can't focus on their job if they know their loved one is not being taken care of." 

Prior to a servicemember's arrival, they are screened to see if the base and the surrounding community can provide the services. 

"If not, then it is my job to try to get them assigned to another base that can provide the services they need," Captain Wilson said. "It is not a base of preference program, but I gather data, submit it to the Air Force, then they pick which base can provide the military member a job as well as medical services for [the loved one]." 

The program has had several success stories involving reassignments, Captain Wilson said. 

"We had a lieutenant whose son was born with a heart condition and was going to need surgery," Captain Wilson said. "Benefis could not treat the child so we flew the family up to San Fransisco for the surgery." 

The doctor who performed the surgery in San Fransisco doubted the doctors in Great Falls could provide follow-up care. The family was then given a humanitarian re-assignment. 

"We moved the family to Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., so they could make the drive to San Fransisco on a monthly basis to get follow-up care from the same doctor who did the surgery. I thought that was a success story," Captain Wilson said. 

The Malmstrom SNIAC staff began releasing quarterly newsletters in November 2008 to special needs families on base and those in the Army National Guard and Air National Guard. The staff also hosts gatherings at the base chapel for families with loved ones who have special needs. 

"We want people to know there is a program here for them and we are here to help," Captain Wilson said. 

Future plans for the program include a Website where incoming personnel can establish contacts with other special-needs families. For more information, call Staff Sgt. Deanna Peil at 731-4451 or Captain Anthony Wilson at 731-3219.