Righting America

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Sam—Our Family’s Greatest Gift | Righting America

by Julie Nichols

Julie  is a practicing Catholic, native Texan, wife of 28 years, and a mother of young adults (including a daughter-in-law). She is an Academic Language Therapist who serves children and adolescents with developmental, learning, and cognitive disabilities.  She is also an advocate for disabled, Neurodiverse, and LBGTQ+ youth and their families, Julie loves modern-day theological challenges, time with her family, attending Mass/Church, her pet birds, and eating Mexican food on the San Antonio Riverwalk with her friends and family. Julie’s articles have appeared in New Ways Ministry, Outreach, Fortunate Families, Faith-on-View, and Catholic New Zealand, as well as in medical, educational, and secular LGBTQ+ publications like Therapist.News, Zipe Education, MarkPShea, and Gay News Today (Science section).

A family posing together for a photograph with arms around each other.
The Nichols Family. Image courtesy of Julie Nichols.

In August of 2000, our third child Sam was born as a premature baby into a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Beaumont, TX.  My husband and I knew that our lives would never be the same, although an inner peace accompanied the unknown.  As Sam developed through his infant and toddler years, his behaviors and development were certainly different and distinct from those of his older brother and sister who were 16 months and three years older. 

By the time Sam reached the age of 2, an extended family member at a reunion told me that she thought our son was autistic.  Since she was raising a daughter with Autism, I suspected that her instincts might be correct. After taking Sam to several local doctors in San Antonio, one of them referred me to a new local developmental pediatrician in town.  Right before Sam’s third birthday, he received a diagnosis of High-Functioning Autism. With the help of this brilliant Catholic developmental pediatrician, Dr. Patricia Harkins, Sam started a very intensive intervention prescriptive plan.  He received 20-25 hours a week of Applied Behavioral Analysis, and another 4 to 6 hours a week of Speech and Occupational Therapies.  The interventions worked so well that Sam was ready for a regular first grade classroom at age seven.

As the years went on, Sam continued with researched-based therapies, but to a lesser intensity.  And my career shifted from general education to special education, which grew into graduate work and educational therapy as Sam and his siblings grew older.  Sam’s after-school activities were therapies and tutors until he started altar service in the Church at age thirteen and the Boy Scouts at age fourteen.  In middle school, my husband and I moved Sam to a small private Christian school that accommodated children with disabilities, which is where I established a private practice. We were both there for 6 years until Sam graduated from high school.

With my husband’s assistance, Sam completed his Eagle Scout Honor, graduated with a regular high school diploma, and left for college at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.  During his studies in Huntsville, he became a licensed pharmacy technician at a local pharmacy after two years of on-the-job training.  During COVID, Sam returned home to finish his college career and work.  Although he still lives at home now at age 22, he is living a full and productive life and eventually wants to get married and leave home.

Parents of neurodivergent children, it is possible to raise well-adjusted, productive, autistic adults. In our case, it wasn’t easy, but parenting in general isn’t easy. In retrospect, our family would not be who we are, nor would I be serving in the field of educational therapy, if it were not for Sam.  Sam not only shaped me as a professional, he instilled compassion, love, humility, and sensitivity into our family.  God formed our family through Sam, who is truly our greatest gift.

With this background of our family’s story as one piece of many, I am planning to write a book about various specific personal experiences and broader professional experiences, which will also tie into current faith, political, and cultural conflicts (including my own first-hand encounters).  While this plan for the book is in its infancy stage, I have published many articles about these intersectionalities. 

And in this book I hope that my own experiences, tied to broader social issues, will bring hope and healing to a world that needs love, light, compassion, and the Real Jesus, not the GOP Jesus.