033016 ryker and summer slaght kw.jpg

Ryker Slaght, 4, rides on his mother’s shoulders Tuesday morning, one of his favorite things to do. “Just because he is autistic,” says Summer Slaght, “doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to have a life that he can enjoy as well.” Missoula’s Child Development Center, where Ryker gets help with the symptoms of autism, wants to use National Autism Awareness Month in April to shift from the effort to create awareness of the disorder to acceptance and inclusion.

During the first four years of Ryker Slaght's life, he learned the tools he needs to live with autism by working with Missoula's Child Development Center.

At First Friday this week, artwork created by children with autism will be on display at the MSO Hub and Bicycle Hangar. It's April 1, the first day of National Autism Awareness Month, but the Child Development Center wants to shift that effort from awareness to acceptance and inclusion.

"There's a lot of stares when a child acts out in the symptom," said Ryker's mother, Summer. "Other people look at it as a child having a temper tantrum or 'Get your child under control.' First is not placing judgment and looking at it more of how can we help this family or this child be able to go into a grocery store and be included versus 'Maybe you shouldn't bring your child grocery shopping because it screams the entire time.' "

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 150 in 2000. There's some debate as to whether that's due to an actual increase, an increase in diagnoses or a change in definitions; the CDC believes it's a combination.

"You often can't tell that someone has autism, so there's a lot of reaction sometimes in the community when someone's displaying a symptom of autism because they don't have something that they can relate it to," said Child Development Center autism and behavioral services program director Jenny Vickhammer. "We as a community just need to be better at understanding about meeting people where they're at, regardless of having an explanation for it."

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When Ryker was 9 months old, his parents noticed he was showing signs of delays. They started working with the Child Development Center, doing early intervention after he was diagnosed with autism. In January, he started Applied Behavior Analysis therapy.

"He was actually able to sit down with me and my husband at a restaurant in a booster – and sit there," Summer said. "We didn't have to fight him. We didn't have to put him in a high chair. We were a normal family there for 45 minutes."

Summer attributes that success to the ABA therapy, which "applies a preferred consequence, material or a learning opportunity, immediately after his best effort."

For Ryker, that's music, lights and vibration. For others, it might be stuffed animals or video games. Ryker tends to bite his hands, but if he hears "Ryker, hands in lap," and puts his hands in his lap, he's rewarded.

"That's where the funding goes," Vickhammer said. "If you go back to occupational therapy, kids' occupation is to play and to learn. So with that they need toys and other things that help them to grow."

Fundraising is critical for those educational tools, equipment, technology and experiences. Without them, the children don't have the motivation they need to progress.

"Every single child we work with, and young adult and adult, they all have specialized interests and that's where their motivation lies, just like you and I," Vickhammer said. "It's really difficult to find a funding source to find those things that are motivating to the children we're working with, to invest themselves in doing the really, really hard work."

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The First Friday artwork was created by children who are part of Bitterroot Arts for Autism, some of whom are also served by the Child Development Center.

Attendees will be able to see their individual work, a collaborative project, a video about what it's like to have a person with autism in your life, and examples of the motivational tools the center uses and needs.

"It's a beautiful opportunity not only because of the date but because First Friday has such an inclusive community spirit to it naturally. And so for us to be able to participate in that and ... bring the community to us and let them learn a little bit more about us and families of children who have autism and to see artwork created by children with autism, is just a really good opportunity for building that inclusive spirit," said Jamie Wolf, public relations specialist at the Child Development Center.

Sometimes, it's not judgment the Slaghts deal with. It's that people simply don't know what to do.

"They maybe want to help, but I think society is so afraid to lend that hand because they don't want to interfere into your bubble," she said.

Ryker turns 5 in June. Summer said the Child Development Center has allowed him to have a life.

"Just because he is autistic doesn't mean he doesn't deserve to have a life that he can enjoy as well," she said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian