The founder of a nonprofit organization, a teacher, wife, sister and most importantly mother, Kathleen Walsh created Parents Loving Children Through Autism, after her youngest son, John, was diagnosed with autism at age 4.
After the death of his father Jake, John started engaging in odd behaviors.
“He would not respond when you called his name, his speech was slipping, he stopped making eye contact,” Walsh said.
Initially doctors said John was depressed after losing his father. Before John’s third birthday, Kathleen took him to be evaluated at Child Study Team, New Jersey. They said John was developmentally delayed and was placed in a multi-handicap preschool class.
Between the ages of 3 and 4, John was still nonverbal, so his mother started communicating with him through sign language. When John was about 6, his signs started to change to words.
Music became a big part of John’s life and remains so. Kathleen would constantly sing to him and used music as a form of communication. Music has followed the now 21 year-old: he is a member of the Pacific Ballet Theater with a deep passion for Broadway.
He attends Marywood University and is completing his second year in the Student On-Campus Achieving Results.
In 1997, when Kathleen Walsh and her family moved to this area, she said there was very little opportunity for inclusion. “My first IEP (individual education program) meeting, I asked why John wasn’t getting music, gym and art and they said it was because he had autism and they didn’t get those things. That is what made me launch PLCTA and start advocating for better opportunities. It wasn’t an easy road,” Walsh said.
It took 10 years of advocacy to get John what he needed.
“A parent has to fight very hard for those (an educational aid TSS worker). It doesn’t come natural. A school district doesn’t say ‘Let’s give him an educational aid, let’s give him occupational therapy three times a week, speech four times a week.’ It’s not the way it works. The parents has to educate, know their rights and ask for the support the child needs.”
“One thing you learn when you’re child has any disability. You must be educated and you must advocate,” Walsh said.
Parents Loving Children Through Autism has three goals. First, it provides support and encouragement for families raising children with autism. Second, education. The group hosts meetings, workshops and training to bring the latest information available to families. Third, PLCTA provides a place where each child will be accepted, according to its website plcta.org.
Kathleen Walsh raised two other children, a daughter, Samantha Milliken, 23, and a stepson, Kevin, 38.
John role modeled after Samantha, who acted as a mini teacher, said their mother.
“I couldn’t ask for better siblings for him. They are his biggest cheerleaders,” she said.
The mom of three said the most difficult aspect of a mom raising a child with autism is making her other children feel as important and as loved as their brother, who required so much attention.
She feels that their brother’s autism has made Samantha and Kevin more compassionate.
“When you live it, you know it, you understand it,” Kathleen Walsh said about her family.
She offered advice to parents of special needs children, “The day you find out your child has a disability of any nature will appear to be the worst day of your life. But with hope and love anything is possible. There are many others that have experienced and learned that you make new dreams for your child. Each milestone your child reaches will help you through the hard days.”
A child with autism has made Walsh more courageous to stand up and take on people in power.
“I don’t wish, I inspire.”