Loretta Ferguson-Cochran is an associate professor of management at Arkansas Tech University. She teaches classes like human resource management, leadership and organizational development at the ATU College of Business. She also has three children: 12-year-old son Wen, 10-year-old daughter Leigh and 7-year-old son Guy. All are students in the Pottsville school district.
In 2006 Wen was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 4. “We knew something wasn’t right,” said Loretta. “He had a speech delay, so we got him into Dennis Developmental Center in Little Rock and got him tested.” Dennis Developmental Center is one of only two places in the state of Arkansas that can give a Medicaid eligible diagnosis. A Medicaid eligible autism diagnosis qualifies the family for Medicaid and allows a buy-in to Medicaid. The diagnosis is a team effort. “You have to have an M.D., a PHD psychologist and speech therapist,” said Loretta. The diagnosis turned out to be the easy part. “When we got our diagnosis we were like, what do we do now?” said Loretta.
What to do next is the question on any parent’s lips after a diagnosis of Autism. Luckily, Loretta didn’t need to look long or far for help. “MiChild [a division of Friendship Community Care] is the only daycare in this area that’s set up for kiddos with Wen’s disability differences,” said Loretta. During moments of uncertainty, a familiar friendly face can bring reassurance. Loretta saw a familiar face at Friendship. “It just so happened that we walked in the door and saw Jaqueline Anderson in the front office. I worked with Jaqueline back in high school, so I immediately had a familiar face in front of me. And we didn’t know what we were doing, so she just took care of everything. Jaqueline is just as good as gold.” Friendship Services “began the educational process for us,” said Loretta.
Friendship Community Care was ahead of its time when Loretta enrolled Wen in 2006, but the Russellville based non-profit has dramatically improved their care for autistic children since then. Friendship now offers autism specialty rooms with trained staff and smaller classes in response to increased awareness and need for autistic childcare.
Wen stayed at MiChild through his preschool years, and enrolled in kindergarten at Pottsville Elementary afterward. “MiChild was excellent preparation for school,” said Loretta. “Wen came into kindergarten without any academic delays whatsoever.”
Wen had finished his kindergarten year at Pottsville, but had not made good progress in physical therapy. This was a concern to MiChild therapist Lynda Steed, who suggested Loretta contact Jody Kusturin who was opening the Equestrian Zone, a non-profit organization that provides hippotherapy to individuals with disabilities.
Hippotherapy is a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy in which a therapist uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input. “This was theoretically a competitor of MiChild,” said Loretta. “But that’s what is wonderful about Friendship and the Equestrian Zone, too. They’re not worried about making money, they do what’s best for the child. Those are the kinds of things that really impress me, when you have an organization that focusses on the kiddos.” Wen responded well to the horses, and made up ground he had lost during the school year.
Loretta notes a standout characteristic of Friendship Community Care along with other care providers in the area is their perspective of disabilities. “The issue for anyone with a disability is that they always get defined by their differences. Anywhere you go the first thing you hear is what the child can’t do. The dialogue should be about what the child can do? What are the child’s strengths? How can this child be successful.”
Loretta says that when you see a special needs child acting out or misbehaving you shouldn’t blame the child or the parents. “The child is probably just not able to communicate what is going on with him or her. A lot of time if you can figure out what’s causing the crisis of the moment and how to help them through it, you build strength in that child,” said Loretta. “If you can look at a child from his or her strengths, and challenge them to succeed, the opportunities that they have are beyond what you can imagine.”
Searching for ways to address Wen’s social shortcomings as he matured, Loretta tried sports. “Part of me wants to protect him and not let him near anybody else because he’s vulnerable,” said Loretta. “But there’s also a part of me that says he’s going to be in society. He’s got to be able to manage that.” So Wen played football. And Wen did well.
“He’ll never be in the NFL,” said Loretta. “But for us winning isn’t scoring points. Winning is having friends, making connections, being part of a team, being included.” Wen actually excelled at some aspects of football. “Wen learned the plays probably better than anybody else on the team because the plays are patterns, and autistic children do really well with patterns.”
Loretta’s journey with Wen has led her down a path of discovery. She now sits on the Arkansas Legislative Task force for Autism as a parent member. This position allows her to look at issues that impact children with autism. Autism is the fastest growing disorder for children, outpacing diabetes, cancer and other well-known disorders. Loretta thinks improvement in diagnostics as well as awareness of autism are the reasons behind the growth. “The first individual ever diagnosed with autism is still alive and well in Mississippi,” said Loretta. “I think he’s in his sixties or seventies.” Such a recent first diagnosis of a disorder supports Loretta’s thoughts of improved testing as the pillar supporting the growth in autism diagnosis.
Loretta has learned that autism, along with other disorders, should not mean discrimination, but rather understanding of the differences. “We’re not sure why Wen has autism, but that’s just part of him. We should really, as a society, stop judging people and creating inappropriate value labels. We should accept and try to build people up,” said Loretta. “As a society if we don’t do that we’re damning ourselves. We’re limiting ourselves. We do it unconsciously, but for example, Wen doesn’t need a lower educational standard. Yeah he’s going to struggle, but he can do the work. We don’t need to lower the standards; we need to challenge the child. The discrimination of low expectations needs to end, and that’s hard.”
Loretta chairs the Arkansas Behavioral Health Planning and Advisory Council and sits on the board of the Arkansas Disability Coalition in addition to her seat on the Arkansas Legislative Task force for Autism. She travels frequently and meets people from all over the state. But for Loretta there’s no place like home. She counts living in the River Valley as a blessing for many reasons. At the top of the list is the people she has encountered with Wen. “When people talk about this being a beautiful place to live I say it is; the landscape is gorgeous. But when you know the people here, and see the people reach out to your family, that’s what is beautiful about the River Valley.”