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Holiday blessings: A family deals with autism, Christmas and a move

By Jimmy Alford | Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Xander Snitker plopped down into his beanbag chair without a word to read one of his favorite books. The chair enveloped him, so that for a moment it appeared the chair had sprouted legs rather than cradled a kid.

His little sister, Sydney, 2, was getting a diaper change from her dad, Doug. Mom Melanie was sitting on the couch. The Snitkers have been packing and storing precious things, readying not only for the holidays but also for a coming move, away from Decatur.

They are moving to be closer to Doug’s family, even though he has yet to secure a job. Moving and Christmas coming at the same time would be tough for any family, and it’s tougher still for the Snitkers because Xander has autism.

IN THE EYES – Xander, 7, is diagnosed with autism. Although his family will deal with many trials, they feel blessed by how atypical he is, both as an autistic child and their son. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describe autism as a spectrum disorder, which means its severity and complex nature can vary widely from child to child. But all varieties share characteristics like social impairment, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. All can cause heightened anxiety for the children in situations like Christmas or a move.

Thankfully, Xander is not the typical autistic child. With a little luck, the Snitkers believe they’ll be able to make it through both the holidays and the move with minimal drama because Xander does not display inflexible adherences to schedules or routines.

TOGETHER – (From left) Xander, Melanie Doug, and Sydney Snitker pose for an impromptu family portrait in front of their current home near Decatur. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford

THE DIAGNOSIS

It hasn’t always been easy for the Snitkers. They are still dealing with Xander’s delayed speech and social impairments. It was the speech delay that raised suspicions when he was a toddler that he might have autism, but they weren’t totally convinced. Doug said that’s what led them to be proactive in getting tests done.

According to findings released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) autism diagnoses are becoming more and more prevalent. The CDC ascertained that one in 88 children born in the United States is on the spectrum – a 23 percent increase since the CDC’s last studies were released in 2009.

One of the most marked facts about autism is the lack of facts. It is still unknown as to why or how a child develops the disorder.

“I remember when it was first mentioned as a possibility, we didn’t really believe it because not all the tell-tale symptoms applied – like the inability to cope with change, or any of the other stereotypical things that are associated with autism,” Melanie said.

Doug said it was a big shock when the diagnosis was confirmed, but in their hearts they had known all along.

“It was almost a relief because now we know, and we could move forward,” Melanie added.

Doug said it’s a final diagnosis, but it’s not damning, because there are people out there with autism who live complete and successful lives.

“There’s a lot of work to do, but there’s also hope,” Doug said. “He loves musical instruments and anything to do with them. That doesn’t drive us crazy. For a long time, he was very quiet and didn’t talk. Once you deal with that, any noise feels like a good thing.”

Melanie agreed. They’re very thankful for any noise and any talking at all.

“I think he was 2-and-a-half before he said anything,” she said. “He was probably about 4 before he really started conversing. I remember there were several times when he wouldn’t talk about anything specific, but he would jabber for minutes and hours. We never thought we would be so happy to hear neverending talk from him, but we are, because it is a huge thing.”

Melanie said they believe Xander has understood them for a long time but hasn’t been able to communicate. She said the family is lucky they are living in a good age with iPads and other technology. In the worst case, Xander will speak through technology.

Children with autism are often referred to as either high-functioning or low-functioning, while others have diagnoses with a milder form called Asperger syndrome. Xander is considered high-functioning. He has good comprehension of difficult words that are considered far above his grade level.

Doug said everything at school has been pretty good for Xander, and they haven’t had any bad reports. Although he has good and bad days, that’s no different than any other kid.

“The school has a hard time finding words that he can’t read,” Melanie said. “He has all the understanding, but getting those out in the correct order and at the correct time is very difficult for him.”

HIS WORLD – Xander sits in his family’s kitchen playing with a miniature toy train. The mechanical parts shift the tiny plastic wheels. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford

CHRISTMAS AND THE MOVE

The family plans on moving in January. Doug hopes his current employer will allow him to work remotely, but he is also on the hunt for a new job and has a few promising leads.

“We’re looking at Odessa right now. It’s a hotbed for employment, but it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Doug said. “There’s not a lot of good housing that we’ve found so far. We are going to move and when a job pops up we’re ready, but as far as the end location, we’re not sure yet.”

Holidays have always been a bit chaotic and random, since Melanie’s family lives in Oregon, and Doug’s relatives are in San Angelo. Some years the four will pack up and go north, and other years they go west. Every now and then the extended family comes to Decatur.

While Xander has never been overly bothered by travel or different routines, not everything associated with Christmas has come naturally.

“It’s kind of odd,” Doug said. “It took longer for him than most other kids to get the whole Christmas concept down, and to understand that these are his presents and he’s supposed to open them. For awhile he would just hold the box. It would take a lot more encouragement to get him to open the gifts and recognize family members around the tree and say thank you.

“Now, he’s into it, and he’s super excited. We have to fight to keep him from grabbing his cousins’ or sister’s gifts.

“I think Xander is going to be fine with it. He’s always been pretty good with transitions, which is kind of rare with autistic children. We’ve been packing and carting things in and out of the house, and he’s been fine.”

AUTISM – Like Xander, many autistic children often have difficulties looking others in the eyes and will have a hard time with social interactions. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford

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