On the surface, Hallie Hoffman is just another twenty-three-year-old, participating in races, enjoying time with her boyfriend, and wearing a warm, confident smile on a face that radiates pure joy. But the journey she’s endured to feel the contentment she does today is anything but ordinary. She’s faced challenges and terrifying roadblocks from whose clutches her family has worked hard to have her released.
Like 1 in every 68 babies each year, Hoffman was born autistic. As a firstborn, Hoffman wasn’t immediately identified as being any different from the rest of the babies her age. However, as time progressed, the signs became clearer to Jody Hoffman, her mother, who developed a gut feeling that something was off. “She was falling behind other kids,” says Hoffman’s mother. “At twenty-six months, she was taking much longer to walk and talk. She didn’t interact at all with other children and would rarely if ever sleep through the night. It’s like she was having a tough time winding down. And once she did fall asleep, she’d struggle to stay alert the following day. These developmental delays were really my first clues that something wasn’t right.”
Mrs. Hoffman suspicions turned to conviction in 1996 when she had her second born, a boy, and Hoffman was nearly two—her son was progressing at a much more rapid pace than his elder sister had at the same age. The stark differences between the two children were undeniable. However, at the time, professionals had only lightly begun to dapple with their understanding of autism compared to today. “Teachers and doctors knew so little, and they didn’t want to be haste in placing an autism label on any child—including Hallie,” says Mrs. Hoffman.
And so when it came time to register Hoffman in preschool, the inaccurate diagnoses began. “The school was convinced that Hallie was hearing impaired—and they tried to convince me too. When I told them that wasn’t possible, they just chalked it up to denial,” says Mrs. Hoffman. “But I knew I wasn’t turning my head at the prospect—my gut just knew better.” To humor them, however, Mrs. Hoffman took Hoffman for hearing tests—all of which she passed with flying colors—and presented the results to the teachers, who finally quit their claims.
With a hearing impairment ruled off the books and Hoffman’s conduct worsening, matters began to grow hazardous. “Hallie completely lacked safety awareness,” says Mrs. Hoffman. “Sometimes she’d sneak out of the house and disappear for hours. It was terrifying—several times we came this close to calling the cops before we found her.”
From a care standpoint, Mrs. Hoffman’s options were limited. She wanted to give Hoffman the attention she deserved but couldn’t trust her to just anyone. “You can’t hire a teenager to come and take care of a child like that. It was extremely challenging. Around people, it was challenging. Around other kids, it was challenging. Around other mothers, it was challenging. People don’t want to be around that—it was isolating.” And yet she had a younger child who claimed a different kind of attention, so balancing out time for each with appropriate crowds was like walking a tightrope without any experience.
“professionals had only lightly begun to dapple with their understanding of autism compared to today.”Jody Hoffman
Summoning courage, Mrs. Hoffman made an appointment with a specialist, who confirmed her suspicions. Hallie was autistic.
Although Mrs. Hoffman had sensed as much all along, having a professional confirm the diagnosis was a huge emotional hit. The shock of hearing, registering and accepting the news before finally forcing herself out of her paralyzed state to take action proved a devastating process. But once she’d collected herself, Mrs. Hoffman knew she had to get to work…and quick. She spent endless hours researching before registering Hoffman in several programs to help her catch up with kids her age. Speech therapy, occupational therapy and a special needs preschool were just the start of her efforts.
“You sometimes hear these amazing stories about children who actually grow out of autism, and you can’t help but hope that ends up being your child’s story. That if you act early and be diligent in your efforts, they’ll miraculously recover from it.”
With a prayer in her heart, Mrs. Hoffman got busy, heeding nearly every piece of advice from parents and professionals alike in the optimism that something might trigger progress for Hallie. She took care filling her home with special toys, swings, books and endless gadgets. “Anything someone recommended, I tried,” says Hoffman.
Eventually, a miracle did happen—just not the one Mrs. Hoffman had initially hoped for.
It happened after Hoffman started public school in the Dekalb county system, where special needs kids are contained in a classroom but well-integrated into the overall school community. Although Hoffman was happy in her school, Mrs. Hoffman knew it was only time before her daughter would hit twenty-two—the age after which autistic children must exist the system. “That’s a generous amount of time,” Mrs. Hoffman admits, “But I kept thinking, what happens after that? What if something happens to me—what would happen to Hallie?”
Mrs. Hoffman began researching and asking around for a solution when a friend of a friend told her about Annandale Village. “I remember thinking, Hallie’s never going to live at any place that has the word ‘village’ in it,” jokes Mrs. Hoffman. But after all the rave reviews she’d heard, she decided to give it a shot.
“At the time, Annandale had a lot of adults with down syndrome who were very friendly and social—and Hallie wasn’t. She didn’t engage and connect with people, and she was one of the only autistic people there, which made me wonder whether it would be the right facility for her.”
But that didn’t stop her from giving it a try. She enrolled Hoffman in Annandale around age eighteen, starting her slow with one week the first summer, then two weeks the following one.
“She’d had a wonderful experience with her public school, so it was hard for her to think about not being a part of that,” admits Hoffman. The initial transition to Annandale was challenging for both Hoffman and her mother. “She’d often return from there and say things like, “I like my house better. Initially, she was very reluctant, and I was too.”
However, gradually increasing the duration of Hoffman’s stay helped with the transition. Eventually, she began working her way up from two weeks to three, and so forth. In the meantime, Mrs. Hoffman noticed a steady uptick in the number of people with autism at Annandale, which was reassuring to her. “With a growing autistic population, the facility learned more about the condition and how to best cater to people who had it, like Hallie,” she says. Finally, in fall 2018, Hoffman became a full-time villager—and her life began to transform.
Hoffman started to fall into a routine, living in a cottage with other women and being supervised by caregivers present around the clock. It’s a routine she thoroughly enjoys even today.
She starts her mornings early with a caregiver who ensures everyone is up and ready on time, then arrives at the dining hall for breakfast. “Normally people with autism have very limited repertoire and eat few foods,” says Mrs. Hoffman. “But since she’d been at Annandale, Hallie’s explored ones I would have never imagined her to. The staff does a great job of putting together the meals.”
After breakfast, Hoffman goes to a program center and follows the schedule set for her, participating in activities like choir, swimming, and talent shows. “Each year, they select an Annandale Idol from their talent show—this year’s was Hallie!” says Mrs. Hoffman.
Annandale also sports a computer lab, nature trails, an exercise room and a gym. Off-campus trips include visits to Bogan Park, splashes in the fountain at Suwanee Town Center, a trip to the movies, and even a stylist that comes by routinely to do their hair. Once her day is complete, Hoffman attends dinner, takes a shower and calls her mother. “We talk every night,” says Mrs. Hoffman.
Overall, Mrs. Hoffman says the experience has been nothing short of remarkable. “Hallie loves being in a routine, and that’s exactly what she gets at Annandale. Although she enjoys seeing family during the holidays, she hates when school is closed. It’s truly been the most amazing experience.
I remember the early days when she wanted to come home. Now, she calls Annandale ‘her place’ and always tells me she wants to go there. She loves it and the people there love her and what they do—their passion is so evident.”
Recalling Hoffman’s early childhood years, Mrs. Hoffman is both amazed and grateful. “Watching her go through the challenges she did back then, I would have never imagined she’d make this level of progress,” says Hoffman.
Today, Hoffman is more confident, affectionate, loving, adaptable and independent as she continues to break out of her shell. “She’s always been a creature of routine, but she’s learned to be flexible more than I ever imagined possible. She even has a boyfriend whom she feels affection for, which is huge. She also loves the staff—she’s definitely made great strides here,” says Mrs. Hoffman.
And the staff at Annandale couldn’t agree more. In fact, they awarded Hoffman with The Greatest Milestone Award, a testament to how far she’s progressed since she first joined as a villager.
“When we first visited the facility, I told the staff, as long as Hallie is happy and safe, that’s all I care for—and they have far exceeded those expectations,” says Mrs. Hoffman. “I know how hard it is being a parent of a child with a disability. I want other parents to know that there is hope and there is somewhere out there for them to explore. Annandale is just a wonderful place.”
See Hallie’s story in our Guide to Giving flipbook!