Real Kids of the Metro: Bradley Schneberger
Photo by Mark Doescher
Bradley Schneberger is a typical teenager in many ways. The 15-year-old Edmond North High School freshman declares P.E.
and lunch his favorite subjects, begrudgingly hugs his mom when asked, is protective of his little sisters and puts off taking out the trash. Unlike most teens, Bradley is autistic and hearing-impaired. Bradley communicates via sign language, makes use of an interpreter in the special education program at his school and several days a week rides the bus to Special Care for physical therapy after school. Bradley inspired his mom, Kristy, to pursue a career as a speech language pathologist. She’s now director of therapy at Special Care, through which she helps other kids and families navigate special needs. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Kristy shares Bradley’s story:
What does Bradley enjoy doing in his free time?
He’s really into "Star Wars" and HGTV. He keeps telling me he wants to move into a two-story house. On Fridays, he goes bowling with Special Olympics and I’m grateful his school helps him partake in that extracurricular activity. He’s enjoyed soccer and therapeutic horseback riding in the past and we’re trying to find a new riding program for teens because it’s so good for low muscle tone.
What’s Bradley’s relationship like with his sisters?
Adalyn is 6 and June Lily is 3. Our girls don’t blink twice at anyone who functions differently. They all love each other so much. There’s a very big age gap because we spent a lot of time focusing on just Bradley. It was a big life change for Bradley, but he loves his sisters and is very protective of them. Even though he’s 15, he is still interested in what they are doing. They’re the only two people he really shows affection to and gives hugs. The girls are protective of him as well, especially if there are other kids in public they think aren’t treating him fairly.
When was Bradley first diagnosed with autism?
At age 4, he was officially diagnosed after extensive testing. He is unique in that we know the causal factor, a common cold called CMV that I got when I was pregnant and passed through the placenta. It can cause hearing loss and other anomalies. But with multiple disabilities, it was still hard to get a diagnosis. We had to advocate to get him therapy in school; until then, we paid privately and depleted our savings. As a baby, he received therapy through SoonerStart and private therapy through the Hough Ear Institute. Bradley also failed his newborn hearing screening, which is now federally-mandated. He only had minor loss and wasn’t fitted with hearing aids until age 1. It should have been as soon as possible. Things have really changed and there’s a lot more awareness now. It’s so important for developing hearing and speech. The analog hearing aids’ quality wasn’t as good as digital and for a kid with sensory integration issues, it was overwhelming. He has one cochlear implant and uses sign language.
What was it like for you to hear that diagnosis?
On one side, it was a little bit of a relief to have an explanation and a clear-cut diagnosis with a treatment plan. On the other, it’s kind of like someone punching you in the stomach. It sounded so scary, especially back then. Now people are more aware and it’s diagnosed more often. There is a huge spectrum and not knowing how it would inhibit him and his behaviors, especially with multiple disabilities, was devastating.
What are some of the signs and symptoms that alerted you that Bradley could have autism?
When Bradley was 1, we noticed some quirks that we just attributed to how smart he was. He would line up letters that had to be just right; he would color code things and if we moved them he would get so upset. I see my typical kids doing some degree of obsessive behaviors, but Bradley’s took over his life and there was no escape from it. A lack of connection with people, decreased eye contact, non-functional communication, ritualistic and obsessive behaviors all are key signs.
Why is it important for parents to watch for these symptoms and get a child diagnosed early?
As a professional, I don’t want parents to be paranoid about the signs, but I want them to be aware so they can seek out developmental help from therapists early. Early diagnosis is paramount. The earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the treatment to try to reshape behaviors and teach important skills and the better the outcome. Family training is imperative to implementing behavioral strategies at home. Speech and language therapies are so important. By age 3 kids have about 75 percent of foundational language already learned, so if you wait until after 3 you have to go against the current.
As a mom, what’s the most challenging part of having a child with autism?
Autism is almost an invisible disability. To the outside world you have a typical looking kid, but then you see behaviors that aren’t typical. You can feel isolated as a mom when your child is different. People might turn away because his behaviors were too much. His behaviors were really hard when he was young and it was hard to explain that he actually has a disability causing his meltdowns or behaviors or strange sounds. There were instances where people said we just needed to spank him or that he was spoiled.
What’s the sweetest part?
It really makes you celebrate milestones. The first step becomes all that much sweeter. I remember the first time he signed he loved me. All parents celebrate milestones, but when you have to work for them so hard, it’s even sweeter. Parents always want to make our kids’ lives easier but I’m grateful for where we are and what’s happened because we have people in our lives that we would never have had.
What’s the best way for friends and family to support a child and family dealing with autism?
Inclusion is more beneficial than anything. For any family with a child with special needs where they don’t have typical interaction, when someone steps outside of their box and tries to interact in any way possible, that helps them to feel less isolated. It may not be a typical interaction, and that’s okay and still very helpful. Also empowering families to talk about “my child has autism; these are some of the things they do or don’t do and it’s okay.” With my kids and at Special Care where they integrate typical with special needs kids, we facilitate interactions and have that same discussion, doing it on a level so they can interact and not be fearful of oddities.
What advice do you give other parents facing a similar diagnosis?
I encourage families to seek out all the resources they can but also learn how to implement strategies at home in a natural setting. Try not to think about what your child is lacking but how to shape the positive and know that the sky’s the limit. The diagnosis doesn’t have to be so bleak like parents probably initially feel; everything is still possible for your child. It’s so important to me to encourage families not to hold back and to include their child. Go to that birthday party, go to the sensory-friendly movies, go to the restaurant, go to church or a get-together. Educate people and feel comfortable modifying or letting people know about your child’s needs so the whole family can experience life.
How does Bradley serve as an inspiration to you and others?
Just seeing how hard he has to work at everything inspires me. Sometimes I forget how isolated a child can be who has autism. I remember my teenage years and I was an emotional teen, but knowing that those emotions and hormones are all compounded with such an isolating disability means he has to work so much harder to do what we take for granted. To answer a simple thing like a yes or no question is hard work but a typical child comes by it naturally. That’s his daily life. Seeing him have a social smile or connection or meet a milestone is inspiring.
What do you envision for Bradley’s future?
My main goal is that Bradley will be happy, embrace who he is and enjoy life. My hopes are for him to connect and communicate with a peer to have a true friendship, and, as an adult, find his niche in this world.
What one word best describes Bradley?