Eighteen-year-old Danny Ahlrich seems like any other teenager. Friendly and kind, he likes drawing and playing video games. He thought high school would never end, and he”s excited about starting college in the fall.
There”s one major difference between Danny and his peers, though: Danny has autism, a complex neurobiological disorder that typically impairs communication and social interaction. At the time Danny was diagnosed, no one imagined he”d graduate from high school, let alone attend college on a Hope Scholarship.
"I had to go to school a lot earlier than my sisters," Danny says. "It kind of stinks."
While Danny didn”t appreciate that schooling at the time, it helped make him what he is today: a success story. Thanks to his strong family, committed teachers and therapists, and his own diligence and hard work, Danny is proof that autistic children can – and do – thrive.
Danny”s case wasn”t always hopeful, however. Though he was healthy at birth, by around 15 months, Donna and John C. Ahlrich began to suspect that something was wrong with their son. After speaking words at 11 months, he was no longer talking and had staring spells. Luckily, the Ahlriches” pediatrician listened to their concerns and agreed that something was wrong.
By age 2, Danny was undergoing constant testing and therapies, but he was still nonverbal, had difficulty processing information, and had taken to screaming and banging his head in frustration. It wasn”t until age 4, the year he really began talking, that he was diagnosed as moderately autistic. ‰
The Darkest Hours
Autism is part of a group of disorders – autism spectrum disorders (ASD) – which includes Asperger syndrome, and symptoms can range from mild to extremely severe. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure.
"When I heard the word “autism,” I broke down and cried," Donna says. "Back then, it was like a death sentence. It didn”t get any worse than this."
After all, at one point early on in the search for a diagnosis, a doctor had said, "We don”t know what it is, but at least he”s not autistic." Another therapist, after an hour of observation, told the Ahlriches that the most they could hope for their son was that someday he”d make it to a group home.
"As a parent of a newly diagnosed child, you assume you know nothing and the professionals know everything," Donna says. "It”s devastating."
Donna remembers in her darkest period asking a doctor, "Can you tell me it”s going to get better?" The answer was no. "Then lie to me," she said. "I need something to get me through today."
Rays of Hope
The breakthrough came in first grade, when Danny was selected to pioneer an inclusion program in the Gwinnett County Public Schools, along with another first-grader and two kindergarteners. Since age 3, Danny had been in an early intervention program at Norton Elementary in addition to extensive therapy outside of school. Now, instead of learning alongside other special needs children, where he often picked up peers” behavior, Danny would attend regular classrooms supported by paraprofessionals as needed.
"It was really a big step for him – and us – that he entered a regular education class. We started to see the improvement," John says. "The inclusion program, for us, has been a huge success."
Danny agrees: "It helped me get through my grades; it helped me with notes; it helped me w