Living on the spectrum: Local families on journey with autism

Published 9:06 am Sunday, May 20, 2018


NATCHEZ — One in every 59 U.S. children has autism, the latest data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention indicates.

With that percentage growing every year, most people at least know of someone directly affected by autism.

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And of all those stories, every one is unique.

Take for example the Heatherly family, with parents Susannah and Wade and their three children, Wesley, Carolyne and Byrne — both 19-year-old Wesley and 14-year-old Byrne have autism.

Susannah and Wade said they have bonded with many other families affected by autism, but they do not know of any others in the area with more than one autistic member in the family.

And somehow, the Heatherly family manages to simultaneously be both unique, yet exactly like any other family.

“Me and Wesley, we kind of mess with each other,” 15-year-old Carolyne said with a wry smile.

Wesley, who just wrapped up his first year of college, would commonly play jokes throughout his upbringing, both to the delight and chagrin of his family, depending on the target.

“Oh, he’s very funny,” Wade said. “He does this thing where he’ll take water and act like he’s sneezing and then, ‘ah-choo!’” Wade said, imitating his son’s practical joke.

Whereas Wesley and Carolyne have the sibling rivalry one might expect from the two eldest in the family, Byrne has a special fondness for his older sister.

“He has to tell me goodnight, every night,” Carolyne said.

That sort of happy-go-lucky attitude is embodied with each member of the Heatherly family. Despite the initial struggles to come to grips with their situation that anyone would undergo, the family refused to ever throw a pity party after either Wesley or Byrne’s diagnoses — rather, everyone embraced what made the two so great and how they helped everyone else in the family become better.

For example, Wesley hopes to put his mathematics talents to good use by becoming a teacher. After graduating last year from Trinity Episcopal Day School, where his mother taught, Wesley began his tenure at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, and soon became a member of the school’s honor society.

Byrne, whose autism is more severe than his older brother’s, is gifted with an exceptional memory. He demonstrates this with one of his favorite objects — his many DVDs. His fascination comes less from the movies, but instead with the physical discs and cases and all the details that accompany them.

To demonstrate, Wade asked Byrne when the movie “Snow Dogs,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. was released on VHS tape.

His son responded without a second of hesitation.

“May 14, 2002,” Byrne said.

Of course, he was on the nose. Wade could have named any VHS tape in Byrne’s collection, and he likely would have gotten the same result.

All these little things such as Wesley’s jokes or Byrne’s hobbies add up to a distinct experience for the family, one they appreciate. And as through the years together, the family has built upon a number of virtues.

“I’ve learned definitely acceptance, tolerance … how to be strong,” Susannah said. “Stronger that I probably realized I could have been.”

For others, that strength has just begun building.

Sarah Gousset found out about two years ago her son, Roman, had autism. Gousset, a nurse practitioner, first thought Roman might just be delayed in speech when he still was not talking by one-and-a-half. But as the symptoms became more apparent, she and her husband Brandon began to suspect autism.

On March 31, 2015, a clinician in Jackson confirmed that suspicion.

But like members of the Heatherly family, Sarah was ready to hit the ground running.

“I guess because I had a medical background and I was thinking in that mindset … I was just immediately (like), ‘Go, go, go,’” she said. “Tell me everything I need to know.”

Despite going through a period of “grief” and “shock,” Sarah has faith in her son.

Now almost 5 years old, Roman attends Vidalia Lower Elementary, where he goes for speech and occupational therapy twice a week. He also goes to Key Rehab for therapy three days a week.

While the journey is still relatively short-lived for Sarah, husband Brandon, and their 10-year-old daughter, Tatum, the experience with Roman has only strengthened the family’s bond, Sarah said.

And not only that, but she has also grown spiritually.

“It strengthened my faith in God and in my community,” she said through tears. “So many people have helped, like people I didn’t even know.”

She named people such as Susannah who have reached out with a helping hand, having never even met Sarah. That kind of unity is something she said is paramount to raising her son.

“People say ‘It takes a village,’ but with a child with autism, it really does,” Sarah said. “I’ve had wonderful support at home and church and in my workplace — just everybody.”

But Sarah also hopes to increase awareness even higher, and one way she aims to do that is by potentially organizing a 5k run for autism awareness.

“I always wanted to do one here, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it,” she said.

Sarah envisions holding a run here in the Miss-Lou, preferably sometime during April — National Autism Awareness Month — and she encouraged anyone interested in the idea to reach out to her.

Until then, Sarah said she and her family continue to celebrate every little accomplishment that comes along the way for Roman, and that he has taught her more than she can put into words.

“He’s amazing,” Sarah said. “And if he can get through the challenges, then I can, too.”