The Gymnastics of a Modern Family
Sugar Hill, Georgia (Senate District 45)
It’s not hard to imagine how hectic a Saturday morning can be for a family with four boys under 12 years old. Now imagine three of those boys are on the autism spectrum. Then imagine that Mom has recently had a first epileptic event of unknown origin and cannot drive for six months. It’s a lot to manage. Still, the French family is bustling along on this Saturday morning in Sugar Hill, Georgia, starting with bowling, which is the choice of Hunter, 12, and Jacob, 7. Then, they head over to gymnastics, which is what Andrew, 10, and Nathan, 6, love to do. Hunter, Andrew, and Jacob French all have autism; Andrew’s is the most pronounced.
Andrew got into gymnastics because his occupational therapist recommended it as a supplemental activity. He loves gymnastics, rotating through activities like trampoline and high bar. Mom, Stephanie, says that, in the three years at Metro Gymnastics, she’s seen amazing improvement not only in his physical and motor skills, such as focus, strength, balance and hand-eye coordination, but also in his social skills. “He waits his turn,” Stephanie explains, “and he’s become very talkative. He’s always very eager and excited to come.” (Story continues below after slideshow.)
Andrew is on the Katie Beckett Waiver. It helps his family pay for therapies and medical expenses. Given the level of his need, those expenses can rack up quickly. Stephanie describes the process of simply getting to diagnosis. They went through an evaluation with Dr. Weintraub in Norcross, so sought after there was a six-month waitlist for a first appointment. The evaluation alone cost $1,750. They initially applied for a waiver in 2011, a year and a half after Andrew's diagnosis. Andrew was in Babies Can't Wait at 18 months. Babies Can’t Wait is a federally-funded program run by the Georgia of Department of Public Health that serves young children with developmental or chronic health conditions.
After gymnastics class is over, the family packs into their minivan to head over to nearby E.E. Robinson Park so the boys can ride bikes, enjoy a picnic with snacks and water bottles and generally burn off some steam. The boys take off, riding in zigzags all over the park’s well-kept sidewalks, but staying in sight, while Dad, Trey, watches and cheers. Mom keeps working on the spread of food.
When Andrew started to show signs of autism by 18 months – limited eye contact, separation anxiety, limited response to praise, non-existent social interaction, no interest in typical play and toys, etc. – they did the evaluation with Dr. Weintraub. According to Stephanie, the doctor looked at her and said, “I’m not going to lie or sugarcoat it, it’s going to cost you a lot of money, time, energy. You may lose friends. Your life is never going to be the same.” Dr. Weintraub was not wrong in his assessment of how costly it is to have a child with a developmental disability. Dad, Trey, who handles the finances, estimates they have spent an average of $3,000 per month out-of-pocket over the last nine years.
The waiver application was extremely complicated and time consuming. They had to utilize a private consultant to help with the application, waiting about 90 days for approval once submitting the completed application. Stephanie says, “Having someone with the knowledge and expertise in the process eliminated a huge amount of stress for us.” Andrew's application was quickly approved the first time. They have since chosen to do the renewal on their own, with the assistance of their private behavioral therapist and have not had any issues.
Andrew says, “I love school, my family, gymnastics, and playing outside.” He always likes when people are nice to him and others. Whenever asked what's important to him, Andrew mentions God, family and friends. He loves going to church and Bible class. It doesn't take much to make him happy. He finds joy in life and spending it with those he loves. He does not like to be teased, as he perceives that to be making fun of him. One day, Andrew wants to work at the car wash, and he’d like to live on his own but near mom and dad. He also wants to grow old with his brothers and live in a retirement home with them one day.
With bowling, gymnastics, bike riding and snacks over, it’s time to pack up four bikes, four helmets and four very tired boys into the minivan and head home. Everyone is ready for a nap.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Haylee Fucini-Lenkey