The startling beauty of Shawn Weston’s cornflower blue eyes can’t hide the sadness that lies just below the surface, a despair born of raising a child who is autistic.
Gabe was diagnosed four years ago and now the 6-year-old child and his younger brother live in a big, beautiful home that sports a swimming pool and scads of toys — but nonetheless is a sort of prison. It is so much easier to stay at home than to deal with the tantrums, squeals and other autistic behaviors so often misunderstood and frowned upon by the public, Shawn explained.
The Placerville woman recounted a recent rare trip that found the family at an airport, where Gabe’s squeals — a behavior that usually is an indicator he is stressed and trying to calm himself — attracted the attention of a woman who approached to let Shawn know her son’s conduct was unacceptable.
“She said he was irritating her because she wore a hearing aid and she added that he likely was irritating others,” recalled Shawn, 38. “She ended up by telling me that Gabe ‘is old enough to know better.’”
No, he’s not old enough to know better, nor will he ever be, according to Shawn who explained that her boy is at the “severe” end of the autism spectrum, meaning Gabe and his family face a lifetime of difficulties.
Help from the library
Enter the El Dorado County Library, where an innovative program has provided Shawn, Gabe and 4-year-old brother Dane a welcome respite, a chance to get out of the house and become a part of society in a setting that won’t cause undue pain.
The trio loves to attend the library’s Sense-Sational Kids reading program, part of the First 5 El Dorado program that offers learning and development experiences to preschool age kids.
The library’s early childhood literacy specialist, Geneva Paulson, said it was the interest expressed by parents like Shawn that helped get the special program started last year.
“The pilot program started here in Placerville in 2013 and we were fortunate to receive a California State Library grant last August that enabled our other local branches to pilot one-month stretches of weekly programs as well,” said Paulson.
She added that Shawn Weston was involved from the outset, having written to inquire about possible programs geared toward autistic children and becoming enthusiastic about the Saturday story times once they got rolling.
Library is for everyone
“Our hope is that families who have children with special needs will feel welcome in the library as we strive to be all-inclusive,” said Paulson. “We’ve been absolutely delighted by the interest in this program, and appreciate the opportunity to invite families that might otherwise feel uncomfortable visiting the library. It is our hope to continue this program as often as possible and in as many branches as possible.”
Paulson added that the unique local program is being documented so that other libraries statewide might replicate its success and that it eventually will be available through the California State Library’s Early Learning with Families Website.
Shawn, Gabe and Dane don’t need any documentation to convince them that the program is great, with its priceless opportunity to become part of the outside world.
“It gives me a bit of normalcy,” said Shawn, pausing while reading to her two tow-headed boys from a book about a train. Dane sat quietly in her lap as big brother Gabe chattered to a photographer, then did an abbreviated back flip and wandered animatedly about the living room.
“He wants you to talk to him, to say what he says,” explained his mom in answer to the photographer’s puzzled expression.
Acting as an interpreter and keeping the peace while out in “normal” society is a huge challenge, something she doesn’t have to worry about during the library’s Sense-Sational reading time, according to Shawn.
Not just stories
“What I like about it is its flexibility — Gabe is not interested in story time, while Dane loves stories and books,” she said. “There is a sensory area, where the children can touch and feel items to learn; there’s a play area. The kids never have to do stories at all if that is what they wish.
“It depends on my son’s mood,” Shawn continued. “We’ll try one area, then move on to the next. If he starts squealing, they understand there.”
Shawn said the family’s first outing to the library lasted only 15 minutes of the hour-long program, but the boys are becoming more and more attuned to the social interaction. Dane, who is adopted, has emotional problems that the Westons are dealing with in addition to their older son’s autism.
“The room at the library where the program is held is huge, so each child is able to do something different if they are not interested in ‘circle time,’” said Shawn. “Gabe is nowhere near to participating in circle time yet, but he actually looked up once when they did a song he knew.”
Such a small victory to most, but the hint of a smile lit Shawn’s face at the recollection.
A wonderful place
More than all else, Shawn said she wishes to stress to the parents of children with autism and other special needs that the library’s Sense-Sational Kids story time is a chance to get out of the house and be among the public, in a place where people understand your challenges.
“If Gabe loses his temper say, at McDonald’s, we have to leave,” she said. “Gabe can’t handle crowds, noise, any unusual things. At the library program, we can be happy. Gabe pushes you when he’s happy, to express his joy. They know that there and you can go and not have to worry about preventing his next meltdown.”
Shawn, a CPA, and her husband Phil who is a fire captain with the U.S. Forest Service, have made their home into what appears to be a colorful, lively resort for children. Each boy has a swing set in his room, and outside near the rock swimming pool are all sorts of toys for toddlers. Blue umbrellas shelter the boys and their nanny as five cocker spaniels cavort on the green grass.
It is lovely — but it can be lonely.
“Our home is 3,000 square feet and we have it set up so that the kids don’t have to go out to have fun and experiences,” said Shawn. “But I’m jealous of others, especially at Christmastime and Halloween, because Gabe won’t wear costumes or new clothes.
“So we just don’t do the holidays.”
Shawn said when she and Phil first learned that their beloved child was autistic, when he was 2 years old, “I did a lot of reading and I did a lot of crying.”
The couple adopted their second son, Dane, choosing to go that route partly because Phil, 49, himself was adopted. They didn’t anticipate so many hurdles in their lives, however.
Grateful for help
There is no medical treatment for autism, explained Shawn who added that the family has been greatly helped by the WarmLine Family Resource Center in Sacramento.
“After Gabe was diagnosed, they gave me WarmLine’s phone number and sent me home,” said a wistful Shawn.
It is programs like the El Dorado County Library’s Sense-Sational Kids reading time that give families such as the Westons a glimpse of the silver lining among life’s darkest clouds.
And despite any storms on the horizon, it is clear that Shawn’s two sons are the light of her life.
“They’re really pretty fantastic,” said Shawn of her boys as she swept Dane up into her arms. “Dane is smart, funny and dangerous while Gabe is loving and affectionate. He likes to snuggle and kiss, sit in your lap.
“That’s one of the benefits (of autism), I suppose.”
For more information about the library’s Sense-Sational Kids reading time program call 530-621-5547. The library is located at 345 Fair Lane in Placerville.
WarmLine Family Resource Center may be reached at 916-922-9276.