ROCK SPRINGS — When adversity comes, responses vary.
Some people try to escape or else stay mired in depression or anger. Others, like Jess Freeman, use trials in life as an opportunity to learn, grow, and then improve the world around them.
Growing up, Freeman spent time in foster care and bounced from state to state, finally landing in Sweetwater County from North Dakota about 15 years ago when her husband at the time got a job here. They had two children — a girl and a boy.
Adreana never seemed to struggle with anything and hit all developmental milestones on time or early. Spencer was three years younger. He had a harder time learning to walk, but was on target otherwise with skills appropriate for his age.
Then, midway between his second and third year, Spencer regressed. He couldn’t talk as well as he had before and started throwing tantrums for no reason. It didn’t matter what Freeman tried; nothing helped.
“You wonder what you’re doing wrong as a parent,” Freeman said. “He would be there crying, and I would be crying with my child.”
Not knowing what to do or where to turn, Freeman was confused and felt like people thought she was a bad parent or had done something wrong. At the same time she was dealing marriage problems, even ending up at the local safe house.
Looking for help for her son, Freeman began by calling local counseling agencies and searching the internet. She finally found a doctor in Utah and took her son in for a series of tests. He told Freeman that her son had Asperger’s syndrome, now considered part of a broader category called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
After the diagnosis, Freeman felt relieved to know what was going on. The doctor gave some general advice about the importance of routines and an awareness of any pending changes. Still, Freeman knew of no local services available to help. She made several decisions at the time, starting a ripple effect that continues today.
FIRST RIPPLE: FAMILY
Freeman left her husband and enrolled at Western Wyoming Community College. At the time, Spencer was 4, and Adreana was 7.
“It was my opportunity to start over,” she said. “I wanted a better life for my kids.”
She studied psychology in order to help her son. She worked at several jobs in the community while completing her coursework online, going on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.
Freeman learned that kids with ASD don’t know how to speak for themselves. Although they exhibit behaviors considered “bad,” they aren’t trying to cause problems. They’re just attempting to communicate and at times don’t have the skills to do it in ways considered acceptable.
When Spencer was young, he couldn’t handle frustrating situations. He even ended up throwing a chair at the doctor who did his testing.
He’s intelligent but has problems with communication and social interaction. At 5 years old, Spencer’s vocabulary included words he shouldn’t have even known, and math concepts have always been easy for him. For example, fraction concepts were grasped over the course of dinner one evening.
When it comes to interacting with others, though, his tendency has been to speak whatever comes to mind, saying things such as “I don’t like your outfit,” or “that person’s weird” without understanding that it might be wrong to say it and not realizing how it impacts others.
Once at Walmart, Spencer and his mom were standing in line behind an overweight woman with ice cream. He told the woman to go put the ice cream back and get some vegetables. His mom has usually been the one blamed in those situations. Thanks to the things both Jess and Spencer have learned, though, there aren’t many moments like that anymore.
During the time Freeman was in college, mother and son applied her lessons by experimenting with different routines, ways to communicate and sensory items. Lavender essential oil aromatherapy provided a calming way to signal that visitors were coming to the house.
She tried “all kinds of things.” Some were designed to use up Spencer’s abundant stores of energy. Frog jumping together into the store made for a more peaceful shopping trip.
Spencer is now 14 years old, and Adreana is 17 and protective of her brother. Freeman remarried and has another son, Syrus, who is 11 years old and in the gifted and talented program at school. Spencer has made great strides thanks in large part to his mom. He’s doing well in school, no longer needing help with academics and placing in the highest math. Socially, he participates in class and takes notes.
Spencer is not the only one who has benefited from his mom’s education, though.
FLOWING INTO THE COMMUNITY
In February 2018, Freeman became the first registered behavioral technician providing Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy to youth in Sweetwater County. She was hired by Peak Behavioral Services out of Jackson, a company that had just expanded to the area. ABA is an evidence-based method for providing therapy to those with ASD, and includes training for parents and other family members.
Freeman was excited to be able to help others facing similar situations.
“Many parents (of ASD kids) feel lost,” Freeman said.
She wanted to be part of helping parents get the extra support they need and aiding the entire family in building healthy relationships.
One of her first clients was Gabriel Deeds, now 14 years old. Gabe’s diagnoses include ASD, neurocognitive disorder (similar to traumatic brain injury), post-traumatic stress disorder, intermittent explosive order and anxiety. He struggles with self-harm when upset and used to lack many of the daily living skills most people take for granted.
However, as his mom Victoria Velacruz said, “At the end of the day, he is not a diagnosis. People need to realize that these are children and they just need services.”
Freeman said Gabe’s progress in the past year while working with her has been phenomenal. His problematic behaviors are less frequent and not as intense.
Velacruz also said her son is doing much better with daily routines and living skills such as grooming and helping with chores like laundry, dishes, taking out the trash and cooking. Sometimes now he’ll even do them without any prompting. Other areas of progress are trust issues and peer interaction.
One of the keys to his success has been motivation.
“Jess was able to find out what he wants,” Velacruz said.
Most kids with autism have something they love, Freeman said. Incorporating that into methods and materials makes things more exciting for them.
One of the first things Freeman learned about Gabe was that he loved Zelda, so objects from the fantasy action-adventure video game feature prominently on a poster with peel-off pictures that Gabe uses for his routines and chores. He earns “rupees” and is also learning the concept of delayed gratification.
Freeman and Gabe just celebrated their first “friendiversary” and exchanged gifts. He calls her Jess, and the relationship looks more like a friendship than a therapist working with her client.
“If they know you care about them, they’re more likely to listen,” Freeman said.
As much as she loves working directly with clients, a recent promotion and probable new certification will expand Freeman’s opportunities and reduce time doing therapy. In January, she was named Southwest Wyoming’s regional director for Peak Behavioral Services and will soon take a test to become a board-certified behavior analyst. As such, she will be able to work independently, supervise and support therapists at other levels and also look at data and make treatment plans. She likes doing the therapies, but also looks forward to teaching others to do what she has done.
If all goes as planned, Freeman will be able to take knowledge of ABA methods to China in July and pass it on to teachers there.
Freeman was selected to go on a SkillsCorp trip to Nanjing, China, to help train staff at an autism center there from July 16 to Aug. 3. She will be part of a team of professionals in evidence-based teaching methods from around the United States. The trip is hosted by the Global Autism Project, a nonprofit organizations that trains staff at autism centers around the world.
“If you teach one person there, they can go on to teach many others and make a difference in multiple lives,” Freeman said.
She said she will be the first person from Wyoming to go. She plans to bring back additional knowledge to benefit those she works with in Sweetwater County.
In order to go on the trip, Freeman is required to raise $5,000 by May 16, which will cover meals, accommodations and secure travel. Her donations currently total $1,725.
Freeman has served Sweetwater County for years, not just working as a therapist. She has volunteered time for projects including “Sweet Cases” for foster kids and the Stuff the Bus program. Now, she’s the one who needs help to continue helping others, this time on the other side of the world.
Those who want to donate to Freeman’s trip can visit her SkillCorps fundraising page at fundraise.globalautismproject.org/o/en/campaign/skillcorps-china-nanjing-july-2019/jessfreeman.