Going Blue For Autism Awareness

Daughter’s progress inspires West Wendover parents to share their experiences

By Dianna Troyer

While waiting in line for an Easter egg hunt to begin, a surge of impatience swelled and erupted from 2-year-old Isabella “Bella” Sparks.

She began screaming.

The incident made her parents, Bronwyn Sparks and Matthew Ingersoll, realize their daughter was developing differently from her peers.

“No other children were screaming while they waited,” Bronwyn says of the episode four years ago. “She was underweight for her age, too, and wasn’t interested in talking.”

After Bella was tested for behavioral issues, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Those with the condition have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, often dis- play repetitive behavior and become upset with changes in their routine.

“At first, it’s a terrifying diagnosis for any parent to face,” says Matthew, a shift manager at a local casino. “The sooner you begin providing services and setting goals, the better.”

“With therapy and an individualized education program, we began helping her to rewire her brain as soon as possible,” says Bronwyn, a stay-at-home mother. “Everyone faces challenges in life. You just have to figure out how to deal with them. Bella happens to be autistic.”

April is National Autism Awareness Month. The designation promotes acceptance of the condition. To acknowledge the designation, Bronwyn changes the color
 of her Facebook page to blue because the color is associated for its calming influence with autism.

“I’m really open about Bella’s autism and want people to feel comfortable around her,” Bronwyn says. “She’s 6 now and doesn’t have as many meltdowns. Instead of cry-ing, she has learned to ask for what she wants.”

Bronwyn Sparks, Isabella Sparks’ mother, changed her Facebook page to blue, which is believed to have a calming effect on those with autism.

After Bella’s diagnosis, her parents sought advice from the nonprofit Northern Nevada Autism Network. Parents established the volunteer network, which is based in Elko, in 2005 to help each other navigate the uncertainties of raising an autistic child. The network helps parents find caregivers, tutors, funding for treatment and physicians who are experienced with the diagnosis and treatment of clients with autism.

NNAN President Korri Ward estimates about 100 people ranging in age from 3 to 50 have autism in northern Nevada. She encourages parents to have their children tested by age 3.

After Bella’s initial evaluation, she was diagnosed as nonfunctional, primarily because she was not talking, Matthew says.

He says he has been impressed with the services Bella has received and attributes much of her progress to those who have worked with her.

“For living in a small, remote town, she has had quality personalized care with early intervention,” Matthew says.

After her initial diagnosis, Bella began at-home treatment with a nutritionist, speech therapist and occupational therapist through the statewide Autism Treatment Assistance Program. It provides funding to pay for therapies for autistic children.

“Autistic kids are generally more willing to behave and work with someone other than a parent,” says Bronwyn.

From ages 3 to 4, Bella was enrolled in a special education class. While attending a mainstream preschool class from ages 4 to 5, she had a full-time aide. She is now in a regular kindergarten classroom with a full-time aide at West Wendover Elementary School.

“She loves riding the bus and rides with an aide at all times,” says Bronwyn.

In addition to her regular school day, Bella is tutored 18 hours a week after school.

Bella proudly shows her artwork to her father, Matthew.

Kim Haycock, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at West Wendover Elementary School, completed classes to become a registered behavior therapist. She has taught Bella for nearly two years.

“We’re working on sight words, writing complete sentences, handwriting, colors and numbers,” says Kim. “She’s progressed and can now verbalize what she wants, and ask and answer questions.”

Bronwyn says Bella has learned to be patient.

“We can take her to the store and wait in line without her getting upset,” says Bronwyn. “A few years ago, we used to have to tell her we were coming to a red light and would be stopping for a while until it turned green. We had to give her time to process that.”

Like other children, Bella is rewarded for accomplishing her academic and behavioral goals. Her reward is a movie at the end of the week.

“She becomes totally immersed and would watch movies all day if we let her,” says Bronwyn, “so we monitor and limit that.”

Matthew says Bella excels at putting together puzzles and building with Legos.

Bronwyn and Matthew say they have learned to accept how Bella expresses affection.

Bella and her mother, Bronwyn, take a break from playing with Legos.

“She has a sweet personality, but shows affection on her own terms,” says Bronwyn. “Sometimes you can tell she’s in her own world and doesn’t care about anyone else in the room.”

“When she does show affection with a hug or kiss, it’s extra special,” Matthew says.

Bella adores pets, especially the family cat, Marilyn.

“She likes to pretend she’s a cat,” says Bronwyn.

As parents, Matthew says their goals are similar to those of any other parent.

“You want your children to be happy, to find their talents and to be successful at whatever they do,” he says.

The Northern Nevada Autism Network meets the second Tuesday of each month from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at the Family Resource Center, 331 7th St., Elko.