What's Her Secret?: Laurel Bay mom works to give a voice to son who is autistic

abredeson@islandpacket.comJune 18, 2012 

Angel Rivera is photographed June 12 at Island Playground with her son, Anthony, who is autistic.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • Features writer Amy Bredeson writes about Lowcountry moms who have advice to share. Email her at abredeson@islandpacket.com.

As moms, it's in our nature to protect our children. Whether it's fending off a bumblebee or making sure a sick child gets the care she or he needs, we do what it takes to get the job done.

The mother of an 8-year-old autistic child, Angel Rivera goes above and beyond to make sure her son gets all the help he needs.

Name: Angel Rivera

Community: Laurel Bay

Strength: Advocating for her autistic child

Rivera's first son, Anthony, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Since then, she has fought to get him as much help as she can find. She drives him around the county to speech therapy, occupational therapy and applied behavior analysis therapy.

She also went to a lot of trouble to make sure Anthony, who is nonverbal, received a device called a DynaVox, which helps him communicate. Now if he's hungry, he pushes a button on the screen that says "hungry," and the machine speaks for him.

When she found out Anthony was not allowed to take swim lessons on base at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, she pushed for modified swim classes. She also encouraged the base to educate their lifeguards on special-needs children. And last year when the youth center on base informed her that Anthony could no longer attend because of his behavior, she fought for her son's rights because she knew that was against the law.

Question. What kind of challenges does Anthony face on a daily basis?

Answer. Communication and social skills. He's learning how to write right now, so that's a big thing we've been working on -- writing his first name, last name. He just has so much to do throughout the day. And it's just what we do. We don't know any different.

Q. How much therapy does he do?

A. He does an hour of occupational therapy and speech on Tuesdays and then on Wednesday he does 45 minutes. When he was first diagnosed, he would do 25 hours of therapy a week. So we've gotten to the point where he only needs an hour and 45 minutes, which is amazing.

Q. Is that typical -- to do so much therapy at first?

A. You know, I've heard and read, and I believe that the sooner a child is diagnosed and the sooner you get them their intense therapy -- whether it's speech, OT, PT ... the better the outcome will be. And I think that's true because I don't think Anthony would be where he's at today if we hadn't done 25 hours a week plus school.

Q. Why do you do everything that you do for Anthony?

A. I want the best for Anthony, like any parent would. And I'm going to make sure I do the best I can to get what he needs. And I will not take no for an answer. ... And I know if I fight for his needs, that parents that come behind me can have it a little bit easier. So when there's a new case on base, the EFMP (Exceptional Family Members Program) gives them my number. I can help them get signed up for therapy, ABA, make sure they're OK at the youth center. I'm like an old pro at this.

Q. Do you have any advice for other mothers of autistic children?

A. Look for support groups or another family that has a child with autism, and just talk to them -- where they've been, where they go to therapy, what's this place like -- because word of mouth is the best way to get a therapist. And I think sometimes parents of special-needs kids might think it's the teachers' job or the therapists' job, but you need to know it's your job. Nobody's going to speak louder for your child than you. If you're not happy with something, speak up. You can't be meek if you have an autistic child. ... You are your child's advocate. You're the best advocate for your child because you want what's best for them. And never take no for an answer. And just get educated -- the therapies that are out there, the different diets.

Q. You seem to do a great job advocating for your son. Is there anything you don't do so well?

A. The laundry. Keeping the house organized ... trying to do the daily household stuff. I think sometimes my weakness, too, can be telling other parents, "You need to do this. You need to do that." But I've learned it's up to them. When they're ready, they will call or text me.

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