Angela Pennington remembers the day her twin daughters, 11 year olds Chloe and Sophie, were diagnosed with autism like it was yesterday. She was scared and heartbroken, not only for her daughters, but for herself. Angela wondered what would happen to her daughters and what she could do to help them be the best they could be. But she was also relieved to have a diagnosis; she finally knew why they marched to the beat of a different drummer.
“I left that appointment that day feeling like I would cry forever. I didn't know much about autism,” Angela said. “I realized that I had a lot of learning to do and was about to set upon one of the biggest journeys of my life.”
Her journey began in 2008 when Angela took Chloe, age 3, to see her new pediatrician, Dr. Ann Haugen, for what she thought was an ear infection. Chloe would, for no apparent reason, cover her ears and start rocking back and forth and crying. She had shown these symptoms before, but each time Angela was told Chloe didn’t have an ear infection.
During her appointment with Dr. Haugen, a pediatrician with The Everett Clinic in Lake Stevens, Chloe started displaying the same signs--rocking back and forth, covering her ears and crying. Dr. Haugen took time to check Chloe and started asking Angela questions about her worries and concerns, which helped her open up and feel more comfortable.
“I felt that maybe I had found someone that would actually listen to me and may be able to answer my questions and relieve my concerns,” she said. “I told her how Chloe did not respond to me when I called her name. She didn't talk or do any of the other things that my older children did at this age.”
Dr. Haugen referred Chloe to specialists in audiology, speech and occupational therapy to provide more answers on what might be causing her symptoms. At one of Chloe’s first speech therapy appointments Angela mentioned Sophia, Chloe’s twin sister, who also had some delayed speech and similar symptoms. With both Chloe and Sophia now receiving speech and occupational therapy, Angela saw tremendous improvement, but she still had the feeling something was wrong.
“I just could not help but notice that Sophia and Chloe were so much different from my older daughters,” Angela said. “During one of our checkup appointments with Dr. Haugen, she mentioned the word autism to me and said that she felt that the girls needed to be seen down at Seattle Children's Hospital.” After extensive testing, a neurologist at Seattle Children’s made the autism diagnosis. Through Dr. Haugen, the twins met Dr. Ellyn Cavanagh who provides specialized care for ADHD and Autism pediatric patients at The Everett Clinic.
“Meeting Dr. Cavanagh has been such a blessing to our family. One of the things that I realized early on in Sophia and Chloe's diagnosis is that it is very important to have a team of individuals working on behalf of the girls,” Angela said. “I have always done my best in making sure that all of our team is comprised of the best doctors, specialists and teachers that I can find. Dr. Cavanagh has made such an important difference in the girls' lives.”
Dr. Cavanagh provided more than just information and resources she became a very important part of the village providing care to the family—which includes the school district, Dr. Haugen and their community.
Treatment for autism may include medication and, initially, Angela was hesitant. She had seen how medication had negatively affected other children with autism. After some additional conversation, she followed Dr. Cavanagh’s advice and although it took some fine tuning, the difference in Chloe and Sophia has been “phenomenal”.
“I had a child that was severely depressed, suffered from obsessive compulsive thoughts and actions and was full of anxiety,” Angela said. “I can't say that all of her depression and anxiety is gone, but it is now tolerable and for that I am forever grateful.”
As the girls have gotten older, their needs have changed and there have been new challenges. Both girls are in 5th grade and are doing well, though social anxiety has been a difficult hurdle for them.
When they aren’t in school, the twins spend hours running and playing basketball in the backyard. They are both very athletic and have been a part of Special Olympics since they were eight, but the twins also have different interests.
Sophia wants to be a neurologist or oncologist one day and loves to do research. She has sent many letters to St. Jude's, always including any tooth fairy money that she has received. Chloe enjoys reading and will spend many hours sitting quietly with her books. She hopes to become an author one day and wants to have her own bookstore.
Angela found that after the twins’ autism diagnosis, reading and learning everything she could about the disorder helped her immensely as did finding a support system of other parents. When asked what she would tell other parents going through the same journey, Angela said, “The most important advice that I can share is to never give up! Hope is what keeps me going—hope that my children will have the best life possible.”
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum. There are more than 200,000 cases per year in the United States.
National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners Association