This April is Autism Awareness Month, a time to focus on sharing stories and providing opportunities to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism and their caregivers, families, and friends.
Susan Pluhowski has spent most of her waking hours with her son John Byron (JB) Pluhowski, but she never was quite sure about his thoughts and opinions on even the simplest of choices. Her 33-year-old son was diagnosed with non-verbal autism as a very young child.
JB was always given the same snack each afternoon of sliced apples and cheese, as many people with autism are accustomed to repetitive behaviors and have limited food repertoires.
"I always had to guess what JB wanted based on observations, but I never really knew," said Susan, who is married to John Pluhowski, TD Bank Chief Communications Officer, AMCB, and Executive Lead for the bank's Individuals with Diverse Abilities (IwDA) area of focus.
It all changed after JB started speech therapy about five years ago, where he learned to use the Touch Chat app on an iPad. So, with the encouragement of JB's speech therapist, Susan asked JB to show her what he wanted for his daily afternoon snack at their family home in Moorestown, New Jersey.
"After a couple of days, instead of the apple, he pointed to the blueberry icon. We hadn't used the blueberry icon," she said. "I don't think until he started using the iPad, that JB was able to realize and understand that not only could he make a choice and express it, but that he was encouraged to have an opinion. It just stopped me in my tracks to get this totally unexpected response. He's been going through his entire life with every decision made for him, because he had never had a vehicle before to express his own choices."
Using his iPad, JB can today assemble words into sentences and "speak" them aloud through the app's voice activation. This advancement in technology has given the Pluhowski family a great gift: JB can speak to his family for the first time in his life.
One of the most difficult parts of being a parent of a child with autism who is non-verbal is seeing the loneliness because they are unable to communicate with others.
"Children with autism don't often get invited to birthday parties. They usually don't play little league; they don't get asked over to a friends' house," Susan said. "Isolation has always been the norm. But being able to use the iPad, suddenly JB can engage in conversation. He can express an opinion. He can be included. I can't overstate how important that is and how life changing it has become for our entire family."
TD's health plan covers critical autism care to help people live to their full potential
The Pluhowksi family has help paying for JB's therapy through TD's health plan which covers Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Many medical experts agree that this offers the best, long-term prognosis for living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While there's no cure for ASD, by modifying behaviors, individuals can greatly enhance their functional life skills and experience, improving communication and social relationships, while reducing repetitive and restrictive behaviors.
TD's health plan covers autism care which can include certain physical/occupational/speech therapies for individuals, caretakers, and families. Board-certified behavior analysts, mental health clinicians and additional providers assist families with treatment, according to Sheila Gleason, Head of U.S. Retirement, Benefits, & Well-being Strategy for TD Bank.
"It's huge that TD provides this benefit, and we are grateful," Susan said. "When you have a child with special needs, you can never get enough. JB can't ever just be left by himself. There is always someone with him. Everything that happens is complicated and frankly involves a lot of expense. Autism is not short-term, it's forever and the need for support continues, which means the expense of maintaining that support is long term. Any contribution to any portion of it makes a big difference."
While TD was one of the first major corporations to offer this benefit, starting in 2015, today, most large employer plans now cover ABA therapy.
"At TD, our colleagues are our greatest asset, and we continuously evaluate our benefit offerings to improve and enhance coverage in meaningful ways – to support our colleagues in living and feeling their best," Sheila said. "Ensuring our medical plans provide comprehensive coverage, such as ABA therapies, helps individuals seek out and receive the right services to meet their healthcare needs."
It takes the whole family (and a village)
JB attends weekly sessions at MJ KIDZ, a partnership of speech therapists based in Marlton, New Jersey. He's been working primarily with Nicole Parikh, co-owner and speech language pathologist. The sessions are customized for each client to best address their specific needs. The iPad JB uses "is very robust and a little complicated, so it involves having the whole family learn how to use it," Susan explained.
"It gives me great pleasure to help JB discover language and to express himself just like everyone else. He impresses me every week with how much he has progressed," Nicole said. "By giving him a voice, we give JB his independence through his words and actions. I can think of no greater gift."
As for the future, Susan is very excited to continue to see JB grow.
"Giving JB access this to tool, this framework, however you want to think about it, allows him to build on it," she said. "Every day he shows us something new, every day he makes progress. I can't tell you the times I've almost started crying over something that might not seem big to most folks, but then when you're waiting 30 plus years for it to happen, it's a big deal. He's excited. He's proud. It has helped his self-esteem so much. It helps JB feel more connected to other people. He's certainly still very shy, but he's much more willing to interact. He still needs you to go to him, but if you reach out to him and make the effort, he's going to try hard to respond. It's a big change. It's a game changer for all of us, especially JB."