Are you crying, mom?” Diesel Ward, 13, asked. “Maybe a little,” she affirmed with a nod and a restrained smile meant to reassure her child while maintaining composure. “Why? Are you just proud of me?” he prodded. “Cause you’re not the only one, so am I.”
Ward and his mother, Kory, had this exchange while whiteboarding his thoughts for his parting speech at Wood River Middle School’s advancement ceremony in June. The honor was a well-guarded secret, and one most parents can’t say their children have had.
The fact that a child with autism is breaking all the rules of his diagnosis has everything to do with this mother and child’s relationship and the community in which she and husband Billy chose to raise their son and daughters.
The Wards already had a daughter, Sailor, now 16, when twins Diesel and Jette arrived in 2005. Billy had deep Idaho roots, and Kory had designs on digging in for her progeny. But 18 months in, she had seen enough to know her boy saw the world differently.
The Centers for Disease Control identifies autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
The Wards’ private reflections on Diesel’s quirks and limitations by age 3 led them to the Blaine County School District’s Developmental Preschool. They were encouraged to intertwine music and dance, equine-assisted therapy and skiing, alongside speech, social, and emotional intervention. All of these prescriptions were able to be filled in one place: the Wood River Valley.
“Once we knew what we were dealing with, and how we were going to tackle it, I told Billy we were never moving,” Kory recalled.
“The staff that work with these students are all highly responsive partners,” said Susan Cooper, Diesel’s first school assigned occupational therapist. “They have learned how to honor a child’s unique interests and help them feel included in their school culture.”
By age 6, Diesel was among the founding class of a revamped K-5 autism spectrum disorder program led by special education specialists Sara Polk and Michael Stemp. Diesel was also seeing a 1,000-pound hairy therapist once a week at what is now Swiftsure Ranch, and skiing with what is now known as Higher Ground USA.
“Our most pivotal tool in our district is the ability to intervene early, and our response is exceptional,” Stemp said. “The teams that are in place here in our district are very highly trained. They recognize the community resources, and they thoughtfully refer parents and students to these resources. They collaborate closely to ensure continuation of care.”
Higher Ground’s recreational program director Cara Barrett said that in her 18 years at the organization at least 10 families with special needs children have either moved here or vacation here regularly to take part in its sports programs. Students with special needs are integrated into ski week with their peers thanks to adaptive equipment and experienced staff.
“Having Diesel participate at an early age has helped him be more willing to try various new activities,” Barrett said.
“I have seen an increase in his self-esteem, confidence and being social with his peers.”
Riding at Swiftsure has given Diesel more command of his emotions and focus, while promoting coordination, balance and social skills. Acting Executive Director Molly Boomer said therapy is offered for physical or mental issues. Services for both are free and complement the district’s goals.
“The recreational sports combined with the unique education and emotional support available to students with disabilities is fairly unique to our valley,” Stemp noted.
Teresa Storey, who heads the Wood River Middle School program for students with emotional disabilities, said families have moved here because they’ve done their research and found “that Blaine County has a lot to offer in special education programs. We are trying to give them more skills to cope with their differences in order to access their educational programs, as well as build and maintain relationships. Participating in outside activities gives them another place to utilize the skills they are building in a more real world context.”
Diesel still has whirling dervish moments, but he has learned how to access a safety net, internally and externally.
At the middle school, he is clearly embraced, if not entirely understood, by most of his peers. This year alone he got a standing ovation in science for his song about the solar system. He made the local paper when he medaled at the Special Olympics. He has made a name for himself there. Elsewhere, he might have been less assimilated. “Absolutely all of this would have looked very different had we not had access to the resources in the Wood River Valley,” said Kory.
Before being invited to speak at the school ceremony, Diesel was most excited to see “Toy Story 4.” He didn’t want to talk about high school. It was a scary unknown.
But the writing experience piqued his curiosity about the future, where he can expand on his talents in acting and singing. He even contemplated a run for student council president. And after a recent tour of the high school, Diesel came home singing, “…best day ever!”
“His growth has been tremendous,” said his mom. “He definitely has more challenges ahead, but it definitely feels like all the movement has been forward, and that’s growth for him.”
Working on the speech with Diesel allowed Kory to slow the frenetic pace of being his mother and beam a bit. “The way he went about this. That he is taking so much pride in the effort. That he is so proud of himself … Well, he has every right to be proud. What an honor.”