Christmas with the Updikes

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2010

Editor's note: The Clarion this week is taking a look back at some of the people and events in the news in 2010.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Tonja Updike stays dry as her son Garrett and the family dog Buster both savor a wet kiss while playing in the family's Soldotna home Wednesday morning.

Christmas is Garrett Updike's favorite time of year.

The wrapped presents, decorations and legendary Christmas characters like Santa Claus and Rudolph illuminate the eight-year-old autistic boy like a string of lights.

"It's a really fun time of the year for us," said his mother Tonja Updike. "We put our Christmas tree up at Thanksgiving and when he comes downstairs he shouts, 'Christmas tree!'"

But, unlike some other young families, the holiday may look a little different to the Updikes.

"Christmas can be hard," she said. "We don't take him to the grocery store. We don't do a lot of activities outside of the home."

"It is a very bright holiday, there's a lot of stuff going on," she said. "We try to not overwhelm him."

Earlier this week at the still-festive Updike house on Sport Lake Road in Soldotna, Garrett seemed anything but overwhelmed.

Crawling around inside a giant, inflatable "Toy Story 3" giga ball with his older brother Cy, 9, and little sister Emma, 5, Garrett was enjoying the new present.

"He's always liked confined spaces," Updike said.

It's a sensory thing for him, she said.

As an organizer for the Autism Society of Alaska and a member of the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Updike advocates for autism education and awareness for families just like hers.

Updike said she's been lobbying for the Autism Insurance Bill at the state level, to make sure health insurance companies cover autism-related expenses.

Through her work and personal education she's been able to help her son by identifying some of his special needs. Garrett goes to therapy at school, private therapy and also home-schools, and Updike said she's seen a big difference in Garrett this year.

"He is maturing," she said. "Even though he may not act or talk or respond like another child his age, he is expanding his horizon."

Instead of bolting when he gets uncomfortable, Updike said Garrett is now more able to communicate his needs.

"He's able to handle things better," she said.

Garrett eats a gluten-free diet because Updike sees a marked difference in his behavior when he does not consume the protein found in oats, wheat or rye.

Autism in the classroom

At school, Garrett works one-on-one with Kenai Peninsula Borough special education teacher Tina Gilman and uses a special curriculum, the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related-Communication Handicapped, or TEACCH, a program from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

"He's having a great year," Gilman said. "He seems much more comfortable in his surroundings and environment."

"I'm proud of him," she added.

Gilman said she hopes to start integrating Garrett with other students a little more in the coming school year. Calling it "the friendship program," Gilman said she hopes to get Garrett doing a lot of activities with his peers.

"He's growing a lot. I think he's able to express a little more what he wants and we're learning the best ways to teach him," she said. "We're able to do so much more than we have in the past."

Gilman said she attributes some of Garrett's growth to the innovations of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"The district has done an amazing job on teaching us how to work with children with autism so they can benefit," she said. "I think they're pretty ahead of the state in their dedication with children with autism and other disabilities."

The district's dedication to children with autism might be because of the increasing population of students with the disability.

According to Clayton Holland, the district's pupil services director, 65 students were identified as autistic for the 2010-2011 school year. That's a slight decrease from last school year, but still a 306 percent increase from the number of students with autism identified in 2001.

Current statistics from the Center for Disease Control say that one in 110 children are diagnosed with autism, compared to the past numbers that recorded one in every 150 children.

Social learning

Some of Garrett's work inside and outside of the classroom with his speech and occupational therapist helped him when the Updike family went on a trip to Disneyland in October.

Before the trip, Garrett worked with his family and teachers to help prepare for the trip, like with things he should expect and what type of behavior is acceptable for traveling. Garrett, who also got an iPad for his birthday in the fall, used the technology to help him cope during the trip, Updike said.

"We just had such a great time," she said. "All three of my kids had a great time."

She said Disney was very accommodating to Garrett's gluten-free diet and also his special needs. The family got a special pass so they did not have to wait in line.

"I was blown away," she said. "He didn't seem to mind that there were hundreds of people around him."

"Disneyland is amazing for special needs families," she said.

Garrett especially loved the rides that had to do with his favorite characters, like "Toy Story Mania!"

"It's so fun, we actually did it numerous times," she said.

Tonja and her husband Joshua decided to get Garrett a Nintendo Wii game of the same name for Christmas.

"We thought that would be a really fun way to remember our trip," she said about the present.

Updike said there's a lot to look forward to in the year ahead, not only in Garrett's development but also a family vacation to Hawaii this spring.

And even though Christmas is over, it never really is in the Updike household.

"Garrett watches Christmas movies year-round," she said.

"'Charlie Brown Christmas,' Rudolph and Frosty," Updike said listing them off. "We have watched 'The Polar Express' and the Grinch."

"He loves Christmas," she said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at

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