TERRE HAUTE —
“It’s okay to be different.” Those were the words printed on the T-shirt that 11-year-old Gabriel Gentry wore Thursday inside the Terre Haute home he shares with his family.
But when asked if he actually thinks he’s different or feels different, Gabriel confidently answered, “It’s a trick question. I don’t know how other people feel” so it’s impossible to tell. An early bloomer, he could write his name at age 2, his mother Crystal said.
But Gabe, as he is affectionately called, was diagnosed at age 4 with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which experts have said is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Unlike other autism spectrum disorders, linguistic and cognitive development are preserved in Asperger syndrome.
At first, it was very overwhelming for Crystal.
“I cried many tears,” she said of the diagnosis.
But Crystal and her husband, Jeremy, rose to the challenge.
Crystal learned everything she could about Asperger syndrome and later even received a degree in special education. She also participated in Autism support groups and instituted a routine at home.
“Routine with kids in a[n autism] spectrum is a necessity,” she said. “Early diagnosis [and] the right treatments/therapies make a huge difference.”
A day in the life of Gabe begins at 5 a.m. on school days, when Jeremy wakes him up to take his medicines for ADHD, another condition he has. After briefly going back to sleep, he gets up for school around 6:30 a.m., but he usually skips breakfast because the medicines take his appetite away. Then, the gifted and talented fifth grader at Ouabache Elementary School (which he corrected his younger sister Brooklynn and insisted she pronounce it correctly — “wabash”) walks to school.
“We have our good days and our bad days,” said mom Crystal, as she sat on the couch next to Gabe.
There were many bad days in the past when Crystal said she got called to Gabe’s school “every day,” and there were also times when he was suspended. Kids with Asperger syndrome typically have high intelligence, but that comes with social and behavioral problems, Crystal said.
But things have been improving lately at school, where Gabe enjoys science, math and reading. He was on his team’s winning team at the recent Battle of the Books event. Gabe was surprised at the win, but he was visibly elated.
“I felt that I actually had something to be proud of,” Gabe said.
This marked improvement can be attributed to teamwork at home and at school.
“I truly believe that it takes the parents and schools to work together,” for the kids with special needs, Crystal said.
Because Crystal knew that Gabe likes reading, she helped him pursue this interest, which she said is another important way to handle kids with his condition.
“I … built on that interest and encouraged him,” she said.
After school, Gabe’s day continues at home.
“The hardest thing for us at home is his relationship with his sister,” Crystal said. Both kids attend therapy sessions to help improve their relationship. But it was apparent that Gabe and sister Brooklynn both love their pets and board games.
Most of the time, he is happy just being in his room pursuing his various interests including reading and playing.
“Usually, I do better on my own. … I like to get things done my way,” Gabe said. He loves to build K’NEX, a creative construction toy. He also loves transformers. He hopes to combine the two.
“I want to make a giant K’NEX transformer the size of me,” Gabe said as he held his K’NEX toy.
After dinner, it’s really hard for him to settle down at night, Crystal said, with his mind racing “100 miles per hour.”
“He’s a night owl,” she said.
Day or night, it is a constant worry for Crystal and Jeremy. Crystal expressed worry about what it will be like for Gabe when he attends middle school. But the husband and wife lean on each other for support.
“He and I have worked well together,” Crystal, who is currently a Woodrow Wilson Middle School language arts and special education teacher, said of her husband. “He helps me cope” with the emotions and has been a strong source of strength for the family, Crystal said.
And the parents support Gabe all the way.
“We talk a lot, he [Gabe] and I do,” Crystal said.
“I want him to be a self-advocate. … I don’t want him to be ashamed or embarrassed,” she added.
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or email@example.com.