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A local father uses his professional knowledge and personal experiences to spread awareness about autism

Octavius Jackson has worked with people with disabilities for nearly three decades.

He didn’t know the skills he’s learned throughout the years would come in handy while raising his own son.

Eight-year-old Kendrick Jackson was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age three.

“He had a lack of language…slow development,” Jackson said. “He would screech out.”

The Jacksons found out Kendrick had been having frequent ear infections and hadn’t been able to hear.

“It had been like he was under water, and we thought that was the issue,” Jackson shared.

But Kendrick also had sensory issues.

He didn’t like getting his hair brushed, or his face washed, or brushing his teeth.

In 2018, the Jackson’s took Kendrick to Florida State University’s Multidisciplinary Center, where he was diagnosed.

Jackson said it was his late wife, Robin Douglas Jackson, who first recognized the signs.

He said she played an integral part in Kendrick’s early intervention.

Because he was diagnosed early, Kendrick was able to go to a pre-school in Tallahassee where he received in-house speech and occupational therapy.

“She recognized the signs when I was blind to them, even with my professional background,” Jackson said.

In 2020, tragedy struck.

Jackson’s wife–Kendrick’s mother–died in January of that year, when Kendrick was only four.

Two months later, the country shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jackson said it was beneficial to have that time off because he was able to stay home and work with Kendrick.

At the age of five, Kendrick was potty-trained.

“The therapies helped,” Jackson noted.

Jackson said he also let Kendrick watch Elmo videos about potty-training and read potty-training themed books to him.

The therapies weren’t just helpful for potty training, Jackson said they also helped with how Kendrick interacted with others.

“He did a lot of parallel play,” Jackson said. “He likes socializing; he pretty much will do what he sees.”

Jackson explained how Kendrick’s diagnosis has changed their family dynamics and daily life.

“It’s all about routine, and what he’s familiar with,” Jackson said.

Although he has made tremendous progress, Kendrick is not able to dress himself or groom himself.

Jackson said he also has to be very cognitive that Kendrick does not understand danger.

Kendrick’s diet is also very limited.

He usually has a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch, and chicken nuggets and french fries for dinner.

When the family is hosting or attending gatherings, Jackson said he has to make sure he has something for Kendrick to eat.

Jackson said he has encountered some misconceptions about autism.

“Just because they know one person with autism, they think they’re all the same,” Jackson said. “It’s not cookie-cutter.”

Kendrick’s diagnosis is not as severe as others, but he still has many challenges.

He’s able to identify days of the week, but doesn’t understand the concept of time.

Jackson said his son also lacks patience and struggles with emotional regulation.

“Sometimes we’ll go through a cycle of emotions in 30 minutes,” Jackson said.

Fortunately, Kendrick expresses his emotions.

“He’ll say Kendrick sad, or Kendrick tired, or Kendrick nervous,” Jackson shared. “We try to avoid things that make him sad.”

Jackson said some people on the autism spectrum have the ability to do things above and beyond a neurotypical person’s capabilities.

For instance, he said Kendrick has a remarkable memory.

“He has great recall,” Jackson said. “It’s one of his greatest strengths.”

Kendrick also likes to organize items in numerical order, alphabetical order, or by color coordination, which is another sign of autism.

Jackson said Kendrick memorizes books that are read to him and pretends to read them. He also mimics conversations he hears on television.

Although Kendrick is verbal, his father said it isn’t “real talk.”

“A lot of things he says, I have to figure out what show did he learn that from,” Jackson said.

Nonetheless, said Kendrick’s reciprocal communication – a conversation held between two or more people – is limited.

Jackson said he is still very fortunate that Kendrick is verbal.

There was a time when he wasn’t. Jackson said he would use as little communication as possible to convey what he wanted.

Kendrick’s verbal communication improved within the last two years, his father said.

Jackson said he thinks Kendrick’s exposure to other children at school has helped.

Jackson said Gadsden County Schools don’t have the resources Kendrick needs, so he enrolled him in school in Leon County.

“They don’t have the educational support or the resources for them,” Jackson said. “The E.S.E. department lacks awareness, training; we have to take the kids somewhere else. We just want the best for our kids.”

He said Gadsden County also doesn’t have many employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Despite the disparities in the school system and community, Jackson said he has a great familial support system.

His mother has been very helpful. Kendrick’s school is 40 minutes away from their home and his 15-year-old daughter’s school is another 30 minutes away from Kendrick’s school.

“I take them to school, and she picks them up,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the children’s maternal grandfather has also been very instrumental.

Kendrick doesn’t like change so Jackson doesn’t often remove him from his environment.

“Mom will come to our house,” Jackson said. “They’re very patient with him.”

Although Kendrick requires extra care, Jackson said he doesn’t want his daughter, Kaylin, to feel neglected.

“I never want her to feel like it’s her responsibility to take care of Kendrick,” Jackson said.

To spread awareness about autism, Jackson shares his knowledge with others in the community, and encourages people who have loved ones on the spectrum to reach out to him for questions.

“I’m in a better situation because it was already what I did,” Jackson said. “I have the professional knowledge so I can educate parents on resources.”

Jackson said parents should look at resources that are available and always be an advocate for their child.

“Become as educated as you can,” Jackson said. “That helps you become an advocate.”

Jackson started out as a behavior specialist with the Gadsden County School District, and later became a special education teacher. After leaving the district, he worked for the State of Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

He’s now a regional disability specialist for the Northwest Florida Health Network.

Even with his vast professional knowledge, his perspective on life and parenting has been involved since Kendrick’s diagnosis.

“It’s taught me patience, and to be diverse enough to plan around Kendrick,” Jackson said.

Erin Hill – Gadsden County News Service