Like many parents of autistic children, Katy Valler knew early on that something was different with her son Michael, who was adopted by the Vallers when he was five weeks old. At three months, Michael began to have seizures. By the time he was nine, he had developed behaviors that made the Vallers fear for Michael’s safety — and their own.
“Michael is a flight risk,” explains Katy. “He wanders off when he sees a butterfly or lizard or gets a thought into his head. He doesn’t comprehend danger. He’s also extremely aggressive when he has a meltdown.”
Early on, Michael was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism marked by difficulties with social interaction and communication. Michael must deal with other challenging disorders as well, from OCD to ADHD.
The Vallers, who live north of Sacramento and have eight other children — three biological and the rest adopted, searched high and low for help near their home. Michael was placed on several medications, but his behaviors continued to intensify. Most nights, he couldn’t sleep, which worsened the situation. “Honestly, we were concerned about how we’d be able to handle him when he got older and stronger,” admits Katy.
After exhausting her local resources, Katy learned about the San Diego Center for Children, whose mission is to help children with trauma, abuse, or mental health conditions that delay their ability to succeed. The Center offers a variety of programs and services, including a residential program that takes in up to 74 kids at a time. Most are local, but out-of-towners are accepted as well.
Two years ago, the family piled into their car for a road trip, which included a visit to SeaWorld before bringing Michael to his new temporary home. “Obviously it’s not ideal that he’s so far away,” says Katy. “But we’ve seen tremendous results. Just incredible.”
At the Center, which celebrates its milestone 125th anniversary this year with a grand gala on May 10, Michael works closely with his therapist and teacher to learn coping skills, such as taking a break with his iPod when he feels a meltdown coming on. Now almost 11, Michael has made strides in recognizing and responding to emotions. He has lots of new friends, too.
“Michael has worked very hard in our residential program and has earned his way into all of our hearts,” says his therapist Meg Ryan.
The Vallers bought a Webcam for the Center so that they could Skype with their son often. They fly down as frequently as possible for visits as well as counseling sessions, which will prepare them for Michael’s return home this summer. While Michael was always affectionate, Katy says his hugs feel much more heartfelt since he’s been at the Center.
“I can just tell they love him there. He walks through the room and everyone waves hello to him. He’s always been such a sweet boy. This time at the Center is just what he needed.” (858/277-9550, www.centerforchildren.org) ANNAMARIA STEPHENS