My son Andrew Peterson has risen above his permanent intellectual and emotional challenges – inspiring all whom he meets.
Over 100,000 have heard him speak about respect. Thousands more followed his story, as the first two-time finalist to appear on the cover of Runner’s World magazine. Sigma Chi Fraternity inducted him into its brotherhood – where he’s touched even more. And President Obama recently invited him to the White House and shook his hand.
Few, however, know about his rough start in life, the intense supports that he required and the layers of his trauma.
Now they all need to understand – because Andrew’s story is not unique. It speaks for many.
Three weeks after birth, law enforcement found my son alone with his two-year-old sister Ashley. He was severely dehydrated. If not for her breaking pieces of popsicles into his mouth – the only food source in the unheated apartment, he might not have survived.
During their foster placement, their bond continued to form. Sadly, the two went separate ways six months later after reunification with their birthmother failed. For the next five years, they only saw each other at the annual child welfare Christmas party.
Luckily, Andrew stayed in one foster home for most of that time – with his two younger brothers joining him shortly after their births.
Andrew received intensive home-based services – speech, physical and play therapies until age three. But his progress was painfully slow. At age four the leading geneticist in Indiana diagnosed him and his three biological siblings with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – which helped to explain his anti-social behavior in developmental preschool.
Unable to use words, he bit his peers. He couldn’t sit still – much less focus on the task at hand. He lived in his own little world without the ability to communicate.
Yet the rough and tumble kid – the one with the infectious smile – liked routine.
Due to his stiffness, awkward gait and lack of coordination, his foster family dubbed him “The Tin Man” – since he watched The Wizard of Oz over and over. And he was clumsy – with a body out of sync. Two large scars on his forehead are reminders on his instability – in more ways than one.
He was a kid stuck in time – until being adopted at age five.
That’s when a dedicated speech therapist worked with him – and coached me – for the next six years. He discovered words and began to communicate. At the same time, a highly committed dance and acrobat instructor focused on his flexibility – making valuable connections between the muscles and brain. Over time the exercise turned into amazing physical and occupational therapy as his mind learned to direct his movement – rather than the other way around.
At school I refused to have him segregated in a special education resource room. Since he desperately needed appropriate role models, the principal listened to my concerns and placed him in a general education classroom with a trauma-sensitive teacher. With this integrated approach, he watched his peers day after day. He mimicked their actions. And he exceeded expectations – in spite of an IQ in the low 60s
No doubt, Andrew loved being included.
Since phonics made little sense, he learned to read through site words. With a strong tactile preference, he mastered addition and subtraction through Touch Math
With this differentiated instruction, he succeeded on his own terms. That was his way of taking control.
One day when I went running, he tagged along – showing incredible endurance. A tentative bond between father and son grew stronger with each subsequent outing.
Yet the transition to middle school proved bumpy. Psychotropic medication soon became a fact of life. It reduced some – but not all – of the edge. Andrew still frequented the in-school suspension classroom at least one day per week – oftentimes more. By attaching to anyone who paid him attention, some students took advantage – encouraging him to create chaos, which he readily did. The cross country coach assumed my son would be distraction and didn’t want him on the team, until I insisted.
Meanwhile, hoarding food continued at home – especially entire jars of peanut butter during the middle of the night. Those early days of neglect had left a permanent imprint in his brain.
Whenever seeing food at school, Andrew sneaked and ate – placing the trash in his book bag as if no one would see. His impulsive tendencies from FASD combined with the need to survive from early trauma weren’t a healthy mix. By the end of the school day, his pockets were full – usually with other students’ stuff. One teacher’s public shaming made the problem worse.
“I won’t – and can’t – go hungry again.”
Until his 14th birthday, he wet the bed almost every night – physiological in origin but intensified from trauma.
With so many negatives in Andrew’s life, running in high school was the saving grace. A new cross country coach believed in my son. More importantly, he understood his behavior. After adopting a son with similar challenges, he knew what to do and what not to do.
As a more confident teenager rose in prominence in Special Olympics during the same time period, mentors offered firm yet nurturing boundaries. The same applied to several older running buddies. No one ever promised more than could be delivered – per my request.
Today this 23-year-old man smiles a lot and shines in front of a camera. Yet some things unfortunately are out of his reach – probably forever. And the layers from his past remain. Like parents raising traumatized children, I will continue removing them – one at a time, as I have done for the past 18 years.
Andrew Peterson deserves nothing less – just like every other child who’s experienced the devastating effects of early trauma or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
One day he’ll appear on the Runner’s World cover. Perhaps after running the Boston Marathon and breaking another barrier. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special
To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow his son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold