Craig and Mandy Barngrover were desperate. Parents often find themselves in disputes with strong-willed children over issues like food or what to wear. But the situation the Barngovers faced with their autistic son, Caleb, was different.
“He had stopped eating,” said Mandy Barngrover. “He would only eat dried spaghetti and occasionally bacon. We couldn’t force him to eat. He would spit it out. If we didn’t let him have anything else, he would go eat twigs outside or he would try to eat the tires off of his little Matchbox cars.”
Caleb would wear only one outfit. “It was a tank top and shorts and flip-flops,” she said. “If it wasn’t clean, he’d sit in his room until it was clean. Physically, I would try to make him get dressed in something else, and he was so aggressive. I mean I would have bruises. He would hit, kick, bite, spit — all of that.”
They had some pretty rough years, she says.
She recognized the signs early, and the family had immediately sought help through Early Childhood Intervention in Tarrant County. Caleb entered the public school system in pre-kindergarten.
“We had to pull him out. He would have meltdowns where he would get upset and they didn’t know how to properly handle him, and so they would call me, which would reinforce that behavior,” Barngrover said.
The Child Study Center, founded in Fort Worth in 1962 to provide help for children who have or are at risk for developmental disabilities and related behavioral and emotional problems, provided renewed hope.
Caleb was accepted into the autism services program and within two weeks was eating food he had never eaten before. “They had him dressed in button-down shirts and pants and shoes,” Barngrover said. “He put on 20 pounds in two months because he was finally eating again.”
A few months later, a slot opened in the Jane Justin School at the Child Study Center, and Caleb was ready for the classroom. He graduated from the school in May — the upper age limit is 12 — and will continue his education at the Hill School.
The change is the result of the work of many and guided by good science, says Dr. Anthony Cammilleri, director of the Jane Justin School. “His disruptive behavior was replaced with a delightful, well-rounded repertoire of socially attractive behavior. This change set the stage for Caleb’s academic skills to flourish. He is now functioning above age level expectancy in most academic areas.”
There’s talk of college now after high school, and Barngrover is delighted with the compassion that Caleb shows. “For an autistic individual to have that kind of empathy and compassion for people is very unusual,” she said. “He didn’t have it when he was younger. It was something we prayed for, because we wanted him to understand that when you pull your sister’s hair or hurt her, it’s not funny.”
A child like Caleb is what makes Cammilleri eager to get to work every day.
“Without a doubt, seeing the children in my care become curious learners, responsible citizens, and loyal friends is the greatest reward for the work I do,” he said.
For Barngrover, it is something simpler. “We have a happy, happy home,” she says.