Autism Mom MD
By Dr. Carol Baltazar | Published on January 7, 2021 | 14 Minute Read
My earliest observation of Rey having autism is when he was about 2 years old. The word that comes to mind is focus. He was very routine oriented and would focus on certain ideas/topics. For example, one day he took his collection of toy cars and lined them up carefully. I remember watching the focus he had in lining up the cars. There may have been about 100 little toy cars. My husband randomly took one of the cars out when he wasn’t looking. When my son came back to the cars he immediately asked where the purple car had gone. That was our first glimpse.
Over time we noticed that he was able to recall the details of certain situations and specific scenes in movies—stuff that I think kids would not normally hold onto in their memory bank. In fact, during dinner one night, Rey asked each one of us what was our favorite scene from The Mandalorian so far. My husband described a scene but said he forgot which episode it was from. Rey, on the other hand, could immediately recall the title of the episode and when in the episode it happened.
When Rey started school my husband and I decided to send him to Catholic school and he was there from kindergarten through 4th grade. During kindergarten his teachers began noticing issues with language arts and socialization skills. In 1st grade he underwent an educational assessment and a neurological evaluation. The findings were consistent with ADD and a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder. We wanted to continue his Catholic education and struggled during the next few years trying to coordinate bringing him to speech language therapists as well as trying different techniques at home. We were fortunate to have an invaluable tutor and mentor for our son because, overall, his elementary school just could not provide the accommodations and modifications that he needed to help him succeed.
Elementary and middle school was an especially frustrating and exhausting time for our son and the rest of the family. I was having a hard time finding the balance between work and family life. I was also feeling a lot of mom guilt for not being able to spend as much time with my younger kids. By the time Rey was in the 4th grade my husband and I could see that his self-confidence was starting to decrease. He started questioning why things that seemed so easy for his siblings and other kids took him longer to do. This was a child who enjoyed school and wanted to succeed. It pained me to see my son feel this way. He eventually underwent neuropsychological testing at Kennedy Krieger Institute before entering 5th grade. We received his diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and updated recommendations for accommodations based on his needs at that time. My son also began behavioral therapy and he continued to see his tutor.
"He started questioning why things that seemed so easy for his siblings and other kids took him longer to do. This was a child who enjoyed school and wanted to succeed. It pained me to see my son feel this way."
Since the private school could not provide the expertise and services he needed at that time, we made the decision to transfer him to public school. He attended 5th grade and middle school through the public school system. Like any transition, this was an adjustment. However, we believed this was the right choice for our son to receive the services he needed. I learned about the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process in the public school system and learned how to effectively communicate at the IEP meetings.
My son struggled in the subject of language arts, word problems in math and needed to work on socialization skills. There were days when we felt that for all the steps he took forward he would take another step back. Some days we would be up until midnight helping him with homework. And, when he would succeed and meet his goals, I had to fight to keep his accommodations during IEP meetings. I had to stress the fact that his success in school and increased self-esteem and confidence were evidence of his IEP accommodations working for him.
Things seemed to be moving forward in a positive direction in middle school, and Rey was doing well academically. However, we made another pivot after his transition meeting for high school. I asked the high school special education leader what he saw as Rey’s future educational path based on his academic performance in middle school. He said, "maybe community college would be good enough for him." His response was difficult to accept since Rey had A’s and B’s in his classes. I couldn’t understand why the teacher didn’t even consider a four year university as a possibility in my son’s future. The message I was hearing was "we're going to lower the achievement goals because he probably won't get very far anyway." It was clear to me that the public high school in our district would not provide the same level of support and services that he needed at that time.
When our son started 7th grade I started looking into possible choices for high school education. I considered both public school and private schools. I had heard a lot of great things about a specialized program for kids with learning differences at Mt. St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, MD. I remember his first day of high school like it was yesterday. I remember sitting in the car waiting for him to walk out. I was looking around and couldn’t find him. I thought, “perhaps I accidentally told him I would be at another parking lot waiting for him.” And then I saw Rey smiling and waving goodbye to new friends. At that moment I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t even recognize him. Before high school, I could always find Rey easily. He was always a little awkward in the way he walked. But today he was different. He looked confident and like one of the guys. And I was overcome with a sense of inner peace that he would be happy at this school.
"At that moment I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t even recognize him. Before high school, I could always find Rey easily. He was always a little awkward in the way he walked. But today he was different."
Rey’s experience at Mt. St. Joseph was life changing for him and our whole family. It was a supportive environment for our son to grow academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. He realized that there is nothing wrong about the way he learns, but rather that’s just his way of learning. He gained the confidence to trust in himself, search himself, and say it’s ok to do things his way. He was excelling in school and even had time to enjoy extracurricular activities at school. One of the biggest things I wanted to impart to my son during his high school years was to teach him more life skills and how to advocate for himself. And so he learned to be accountable which empowered him to advocate for himself. I started feeling some freedom from all the weight I had been carrying over the years. I’m proud to say that he graduated high school with honors in 2019 and is currently a sophomore at a four year university. He has faced challenges and knows that there will be more challenges to come. However, he knows that he can tackle the challenges with the coping skills and strategies he has learned. College was a dream that has become a reality.
I'm still active in my son's life, and I continue to help guide him as he’s transitioning to adulthood. I believe the challenges people with disabilities face are life-long and the protection of their rights needs to be long term. I have always wanted to become involved in some capacity to be a voice for parents of children who are on the spectrum. So, I made a promise to Rey and myself that when he graduates from high school, I would become more involved in advocacy. I’m currently an appointed member of the Maryland Behavioral Analyst and Advisory Committee. I’m also a graduate of the Maryland Partners in Policymaking program which is a year long program that prepares adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) and parents of children with I/DD to be effective advocates at local, state and national levels.
If I had my wish, the ideal day for a student or an adult with a developmental disability is one in which the individual embraces his or her disability and has the self-esteem and skillset to deal with the challenges of a new day. The individual would be empowered with knowledge on how to advocate for himself or herself. I love learning, sharing knowledge and information and connecting with people and being able to help them. Those are some of the reasons why I became a doctor. And that's what has led me to create The Autism Mom MD Podcast. I want to build a community that could not only serve as a resource for parents, caregivers and individuals with Autism, but also as a platform where stories could be heard. Stories like I’ve heard that have motivated and inspired me to become a better advocate for my son and others. Hopefully this will have a positive impact for those of you who feel like you are facing challenges on your own. And on this journey we'll pave the way for empowerment, growth and inclusion of individuals with autism so everyone can live out their best life possible.
About the Author
Dr. Carol Baltazar
Dr. Carol Baltazar is an Internal Medicine physician specializing in aesthetic medicine and is the co-founder and medical director of Longevity Medical Spa. She is also the co founder of TheraPearl® reusable hot and cold packs and has 11 patents under her name. Dr. Baltazar is a wife, mom of 3 kids and her oldest son has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a graduate of Maryland’s Partners in Policymaking Program, an appointed member of the Maryland Behavioral Analyst and Advisory Committee, and a member of the Howard County Autism Society. Dr. Baltazar’s passion for advocacy in the Autism community led her to create The Autism Mom MD Podcast which is now available for download on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and Buzzsprout at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1214744. For any questions, comments or suggestions for topics you’d like to hear on the podcast, you can connect with Dr. B on Instagram @autism_mom_md, or FaceBook @AutismMomMD.