- Associated Press - Sunday, December 24, 2017

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) - Theresa “Rese” Hebert, said she and her husband, David, found out their son, Joey, was autistic when he was just over 2 years old. She said he had poor eye contact, showed no interest in wanting to play with others and had serious gastrointestinal problems.

After years of therapy and other efforts, Joey, now 22, has vastly improved. He works twice a week at Trinity Baptist Church’s Life Center, is a recent high school graduate and thrives in a group home for people with autism.

“He has improved so much,” Hebert said. “It’s like a miracle.”

Hebert, 59, said getting her son to where he is now wasn’t easy. But she and David knew they had a long road ahead of them after “getting over the initial grief” when they first found out he was autistic, she said.

“It took years of hard work and dedication,” Hebert said. “He’s now a very enjoyable and loving individual. If he would’ve continued with the problems he had, he wouldn’t have had the bountiful life he has now.”

The first thing she did was join the Autism Society. Joey also underwent years of speech, physical and occupation therapy.

Additional testing showed Joey had severe allergies to milk and wheat, along with a metal toxicity in his bloodstream. Hebert said he improved greatly once these changes were made.

“Diet was probably his best medicine,” she said.

Hebert said they kept Joey off medication, choosing instead to use natural supplements. Over the years, she said behavior issues with Joey disappeared.

Changing environment

Hebert said David was active in the Autism Society. But after he died when Joey was 11, she was forced to care for her son on her own.

“(David) was very dedicated to him,” she said. “I did what I could while I was working full time.”

Hebert said that over the last few years she began experiencing health problems that required medical treatment. Taking care of Joey “became more and more difficult,” she said.

Hebert said she has trouble dealing with extreme temperatures - which was preventing Joey from doing outdoor activities or going to the movies. After careful consideration, she said, she decided to place Joey in a group home.

“I wanted to offer him more opportunities than I was able to give him,” Hebert said.

After finding the right living situation for Joey, Hebert said the transition to the group home began in June. He was admitted to the home in July.

“It was a painful and difficult thing to do,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my family. I wanted people who would take the best care of him in a loving environment.”

The home Joey lives in is managed by Autism Services of Southwest Louisiana, a nonprofit corporation founded in 2003. The home bears the name of Ann Hart Miller, one of the group’s co-founders and a longtime autism advocate in the area, said Toby Osburn, executive director of Autism Services of Southwest Louisiana and DirectCare Inc.

Since he moved into the group home, Hebert said, she has seen “a lot of improvement” with Joey.

He lives with two other autistic housemates and is fully supervised by personal care instructors.

“He does his own laundry and helps with the chores,” she said. “They tend to learn better from imitation and others their age doing the same thing. He wasn’t progressing as well with me.”

Hebert said living without Joey is difficult, but that he comes to visit her on weekends. While they enjoy their visits, she said he is “always happy to go back” to the group home.

Darin Worthington, Trinity’s minister of activities, said Joey has worked at the center twice a week for two to three months. During a two-hour shift, he said, Joey helps with dusting the equipment in the Life Center, along with other chores.

“It’s nothing high-demand,” Worthington said. “But it’s very rewarding for him to do that. He realizes there’s a purpose, and he wants to do something that’s productive.”

Worthington described Joey as a hard worker who can sometimes be too enthusiastic when it comes to his job responsibilities.

“We’ve had to tell him to slow down before,” he said. “He’s such a good worker.”

Since Joey began working at the Trinity Center, Worthington said, he has become more sociable.

“At first when he came in, he was a little standoffish,” he said. “You can definitely tell he is socially better than when he started.”

Worthington said Joey takes pride in his work. He said he was excited when he was given a Trinity Center T-shirt. “You would have thought I was giving him a car,” Worthington said.

Worthington said helping enhance the lives of people like Joey is rewarding. “It’s not all about us,” he said. “We’re about helping others, and Joey is just another piece of the puzzle.”

Hebert said her son “seems to be much happier” in his new environment. “He’ll always be mine,” she said. “But it’s still good to see the improvements in him.”

Hebert advises other parents who have recently discovered their child is autistic to meet with other parents dealing with the same situation and find the resources to help their child improve.

“If they start when they’re young, they can really improve their (child’s) life,” she said. “They all have individual needs and therapies.”

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