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Improving by leaps and bounds

ADRIAN -- Four-year-old Ryan Becker walked down the hallway of the Adrian Elementary school with a back pack slung over his tiny shoulders and his attention caught by the construction paper butterflies on the wall. While holding his mother's hand, he used the other to point out the colorful creations, chattering away about the decorations and what color they were while giving the occasional little-boy skip designed to keep up with an adult.

What a difference a year has made in the life of this autistic boy -- a year and a dedicated group of teachers, family members and caregivers.

Last April, in an interview with the Daily Globe, Katrina Becker described Ryan as a loving, fun child, but said he did not interact with family members, did not pretend play, rarely spoke on his own and had frequent "meltdowns," -- crying, flapping his hands and even banging his head on the floor or walls. Ryan, like many autistics, did not acknowledge pain.

The anguish in her voice as she described the trials of going on family outings was apparent a year ago, but these days, her voice carries a ring of laughter -- a frequent sound around Ryan.

"He certainly has a great sense of humor," stated Jessica Frodermann, a pre-school and early childhood special needs teacher at Adrian Elementary School. "And we love his singing."

Yes, the child who was virtually silent a year ago now tends to sing as he goes through his day -- the tunes of "London Bridge" and "Going On a Bear Hunt" are familiar to those who spend any amount of time with Ryan.

He works with a variety of people during the school day -- Occupational Therapist Tami Hellewell, Speech Pathologist Terri Vollink, Paraprofessional Cathy Marsh and Frodermann. At home, he has Sue Dykema, a personal care attendant, and Judy Johnson, a volunteer, as well as his mom, Katrina, dad, Rob, and 6-year-old brother, Alex. They all work together to improve Ryan's social and communications skills and academics.

Last year, Katrina attended training in Massachusetts to start a home-based therapy program. It took some time, but the family prepared a playroom and recruited volunteers to get a program up and running.

Ryan began attending pre-school in September, for two days a week at first, then three. By December, he was in school five days a week.

A year ago, he had a vocabulary of less than 60 words. Now, Katrina has a hard time keeping track, but she thinks it is more than 385 and includes sentences and phrases.

"We work at home and at school," she stated. "He has close to 40 hours a week of someone doing something with him."

When he first started school, Ryan was out of his comfort zone, something autistic people do not handle well. Transitions from classroom to therapy and back required "tools." A tricycle to ride from one place in the school to another helped, as did picture cues and a comfort item such as a familiar stuffed toy.

"He has a visual schedule," Frodermann said. "He is in charge of that."

The schedule consists of small pictures that show Ryan what he should be doing. The visual aids let him know to hang up his coat, have breakfast, head for speech therapy or have some playtime with the other children. Being in charge of his schedule gives him a sense of control, something important to most autistic children.

Marsh helps him through his day as a one-on-one paraprofessional, facilitating language and keeping him on schedule. Lessons learned in one session are transferred over to others, which makes Marsh's presence invaluable throughout the day.

In the past year, Ryan has learned his colors and shapes and can count to 14 -- sometimes even higher.

"We need to be creative with lessons for Ryan," Frodermann explained. "He needs to learn hands on."

A recent session with Hellewell began with taking a shortcut to her room via the gym.

"We ran, we stopped, we ran, we stopped. We jumped across the mat," Hellewell explained. "We counted each step on the way upstairs."

From there, Ryan encountered four hula hoops. Inside each was a laminated letter -- one for each letter of his name. Ryan hopped in the hoops. He traced each letter while lying on his belly. The letters were then put on the wall, and Ryan was asked to throw a ball at the letter R or the letter A, etc. He had to say each letter and also put play-dough on them.

Sound, touch and movement are incorporated into Ryan's everyday lessons. Instead of spending his time sitting in a chair, he's hopping or on the floor on his belly.

At home, he spends time with Dykema, who reinforces the lessons Ryan has learned in school by incorporating them into his playtime at home.

The interaction between Ryan and brother Alex has changed dramatically in a year. While Katrina chatted with Ryan's teachers, the two boys rolled around the room like puppies, playing and giggling. Ryan climbed under a large funnel-shaped toy, and when Alex knocked on the outside, an inquisitive, "Who's there?" was heard from underneath.

"It is even good to see Alex and him arguing over something," Dykema said.

The meltdowns that used to be a daily trial are now rare and more in line with the kind of tantrum any 4-year-old has when he doesn't get his way.

For Katrina, the fact that Ryan knows who mommy and daddy are is exciting. "Mommy" just used to be a word to Ryan -- one he would assign to any woman. Now, "mommy" means Ryan's mommy.

"And Rob certainly feels better," Katrina reported. "There was this picture that there was no hope, but now he is seeing that it is possible to lead a normal life. He feels like he has his son back."

A son who says "please" and "thank you," who has a silly sense of humor and is full of compassion. One who is learning to join his peers at play, is voluntarily making eye contact and who gives his circle of educators what they call "wow" moments on a regular basis.

One day, he was working with Frodermann and another boy walked up to the table. Ryan looked up and greeted the boy by name, then went back to his work nonchalantly -- as if something incredible hadn't just occurred.

"Wow," Frodermann said of that moment.

Katrina laughed just hearing the story.

"For so long, I would tell him, 'Thank you for looking at me,' when he had met my eyes," she added. "Then one day, I glanced over at him and he said, 'Thank you for looking at me.' How can you not laugh?"

Ryan's sense of humor is becoming well known in school. If asked to check his calendar to see what he's scheduled for next, he will walk over and take a look. If he sees something he's not particularly enthused about, he will smile a quick little smirk, say, "Not today," and head for a toy, causing his teachers to hide their own grins.

Frodermann said Ryan interacts well with the other students, and these days, someone visiting the classroom may not be able to tell Ryan is any different from the other kids.

Between the hugs, the high fives, the "wow" moments and the giggles, life for the Beckers has changed.

"There is so much more laughter compared to a year ago," Katrina said.

Checking out options and various programs is the message she wants to send to other parents.

"I just want parents to know there is hope," she added, smiling as the two boys giggled in the background.