MILWAUKEE - On a grassy field, Elliott is as rambunctious as any 4-year-old boy -- excited to run after a flock of geese or attempt a ninja move to cut blades of grass. The casual eye might not notice that unlike mothers of similarly aged children, Tere Sackerson keeps an ultra-close eye on Elliott in case he runs off into a busy street or trips and aggravates the geese.
Last year, Elliott was diagnosed with being on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – a developmental disability caused by differences in how the brain functions. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control reveals an increase in diagnosed children with ASD in the nation: One in 68 children are affected and, among boys, it’s one in 42.
After raising two healthy children, Tere felt that something “wasn’t right” about her 18-month-old’s development. Elliott wasn’t talking and her sense was that he just couldn’t hear and react to things around him like his siblings had done at his age. So she and her husband, Neil, took him for testing. Then came the news: Something was wrong and Elliott needed more testing.
“I remember telling myself to breathe -- just breathe -- but the tears welled up instantly as I stared at the nurse in disbelief,” Tere said. Within months, she and her husband were told by evaluators that their 18-month-old son was scoring at a 9-month-old level, that he was likely “legally deaf” and would need speech and occupational therapy for a long time to come.
Fast-forward two years, Tere and Neil have put in place a plan to support Elliott’s needs following many hours of research and consultations with experts. Just as Elliott continues to progress, Tere has come into her own as an advocate about ASD. In March, she wrote a blog in a Milwaukee parenting magazine and has done several local media interviews to raise awareness. This new exposure helped her connect with other caregivers experiencing the same challenges, and has created new awareness and understanding among her peers, clients and community.
"I try and read up about autism as much as I can, not only for me, but for my family. I want to be sure that we find ways in which, we as a family, can positively interact with Elliott and vice versa."
Tere is passionate about understanding ASD and also the stigma that comes with it for some parents. She understands that a statistically driven medical world categorizes patients, but she urges parents to be careful and not “label” their children.
My son is my son and I will view him as Elliott, not my son with ASD. Treat them the same as your other children -- keep them active and maintain a healthy diet.
Tere Sackerson, with husband Neil, Gwendalyn (age 6), Lillian (8) and Elliott (4), is using her experiences with her son’s autism to help other families.
“We watch Elliott’s sugar intake, just as much as we do our two daughters,” she adds, “and wherever we go, Elliott goes, just like our other children. And if he has a meltdown at a restaurant or the shopping mall – so be it,” she says calmly, “I don’t get stressed about it anymore.”
And while Elliott has difficulty verbalizing his feelings and controlling his behavior, he has a wonderful, tender side that is “priceless” Tere says. She described situations where Elliott has been attuned to emotions around him – having approached his sisters with a hug if he sees them sad and even saying “baby cry” as he walks over to give a crying child a hug.
By day, Tere runs PNC’s treasury management business in Wisconsin, helping large companies manage the flow of their money. By night, she and her husband focus on their family and especially Elliott. The rates of Autism diagnosis have increased and so has her commitment to be proactive for her son.
She makes time for herself and emphasizes that point with all who meet her, especially parents. “You have to take care of yourself in order to maintain a healthy mind, focus and work-life balance,” says Tere, who puts in three to four runs per week and averages over 2,000 miles per year.
Tere Sackerson participated in a wellness run with PNC colleagues (from left) Mike Lyons, Rich Dooley and Tom Lang.
But even a little bit helps. “Everyone can make time to exercise - even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, that’s 70 minutes a week. Be disciplined. Make time and reward yourself with fitness,” she said.
Tere also believes that children should start this habit early on (she even makes her kids do mini push-ups or jumping jacks in lieu of “time-outs”). Physical activity provides an outlet in which the entire family can engage together, creating rich experiences and deeper connections. In a device-driven world that we live in she says, “fitness and diet are important - even more so when kids are struggling with a health issue.”
Tere Sackerson and her son Elliott both love to run.
Elliott stays busy with weekly swimming lessons and therapy which helps him with his motor skills. He loves to run - which makes his mother, an Ironman and marathoner, blush with pride: 'Running is a perfect activity because the repetitive movement comes easy to him, thus he stays interested.'
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