By Meghan Feir

For every parent, each step in the development of his or her child is a monumental occasion. Their first time rolling over, crawling and walking. Their first smiles and giggles of joy. But surely one of the biggest milestones is when a child begins to speak their first words.

Trisha (Nelson) Page ’10 (psychology) kept waiting for that day to come, the day when Kyle, her son, would say “Mama,” “Dada,” or even mutter a noise.

“He was not talking. Usually at 2, children are pretty well advanced in their verbalizations. They can point to what they want. He was just very quiet,” Page said. “He didn’t want to share anything, any enjoyment, trade looks with you, smiles or smirks. He just kept to himself.”

When Kyle was 2 years old, Page’s mother stopped her in her tracks when she told her, “I think there’s something wrong.”

“I remember being angry with her,” Page said. But Page and her husband soon went in to get their son evaluated. What they found was life-changing. Kyle had severe autism. “They said they didn’t know if he’d ever talk and engage in the community successfully.”

Since his official diagnosis of moderate to severe autism at the age of 2 years and 3 months, Page has submerged herself in research, discovering ways to connect with her son and assist in his development.

In the early 2000s, information and resources weren’t as readily available online, so Page hit the books and dove into as many resources as she could find. “The most therapy we could get for him was speech therapy. The speech therapist, Phyllis Magelky, an MSUM grad, is a pillar of the F-M community,” Page said. “I was carrying around a binder with pictures stuck to them with Velcro, and we’d use those pictures so he could tear them off and give them to me to tell me what he wanted because his voice wouldn’t work. We tried to find language.”

By the age of 3 and a half, Kyle could still only say 10 words. But one day changed everything. “I said, ‘Kyle, spoon,’ and he said, ‘Spoon,’ and I turned and just about dropped the spoon because I wasn’t expecting his little voice to come out. Then I held out a fork and said, ‘Fork,’ and he said, ‘Fork.’ I went through my kitchen and my living room grabbing and labeling objects, and he said them all. That was probably the most emotional and biggest turning point for him and me in our efforts.”

Within the next two to three weeks, the parents realized their 3-year-old could read. Kyle had been learning the words typed below the Velcro pictures in the book his therapist had made for him.

“He’d memorized hundreds of words out of his storybook and he knew how to read,” Page said. “At 3 years old, he went from not talking to talking and reading. That’s probably the biggest achievement story I’ve experienced. Those leaps were so tremendous for us.”

Thanks to her determination to help her son, Page has since helped hundreds of other families who have a loved one with autism. From 2013-2016, Page was the state autism coordinator with the State of North Dakota’s Department of Human Services and earned her master’s certificate in autism studies through the University of North Dakota. In August 2016, she began working as the behavioral health services director at the Anne Carlsen Center and leads a team of highly trained Board Certified Behavior Analysts in serving individuals with a broad range of disabilities to provide better support in their homes and communities, along with developing their independence.

“I’m looking for ways to transform services delivery, using evidence-based practices, so that families that are not able to travel hundreds of miles for therapies each week can still have needs met and services delivered. I also network with some of the top autism researchers and professionals from across the globe. All of those components add up to a pretty amazing job,” Page said. “I always say I do this job not because I need to but because I love to. Some of these kids with autism can really knock your socks off and blow you away with how much they know in certain areas. It’s always important to remember that, even if they can’t say something, it’s highly likely they can understand everything you are saying.”

Whether you’re a parent concerned about your child’s development or a family member or friend, intervening as early as possible is vital in helping their progress.

“I know a lot of people are afraid to tell a friend or family member they think their child might have autism. No parent wants to hear that. But the sooner you can get them evaluated and get them into interventions and therapies, the more likely it is they’ll be able to lead a more normal adult life. Not reaching out for help can literally hinder their progress for the rest of their life.”

All the days of toting pictures and investing in therapies paid off for the Pages. Kyle now attends high school and is successful in the mainstream classroom. He plays saxophone, wrestles and participates in scouting.

For many with autism, early intervention isn’t possible. Their symptoms are less severe and aren’t identified until their adult years. For them, acceptance and tasks where they can effectively use their unique skills are of utmost importance.

“Understand that individuals in the community who have autism are thoughtful, caring people, just like you or me,” Page said. “They have special gifts, unique talents and quirky personalities, too. They shouldn’t be discriminated against or ‘fixed’ because a lot of them don’t feel like they’re broken. They feel like they have a lot to offer. It’s not just autism awareness anymore. It’s autism acceptance.”