By Jessica Sly, Communications Specialist
Holding a fish for a photo. Playing in the snow. Assembling a Lego creation. These are all typical activities of a young kid, and yet, up until September of 2017, they were things that 10-year-old Jacob Cronk couldn’t do.
Jacob has severe sensory issues, meaning he doesn’t like to touch certain textures or be touched. He also has a plethora of diagnoses, including autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood dysregulation disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Jacob’s parents, Tina and Phil, have been managing his sensory issues for as long as they can remember. “Anytime he would get anything on his hands, he would go into a major meltdown,” Tina said. “His meltdowns went as far as throwing himself on the ground or head-butting the wall.”
The problems became more evident when Jacob started preschool. Even the simplest tasks such as using scissors or eating lunch were nearly impossible.
There are very few foods he will eat, so most of his meals consist of a salad or sandwich. His parents have since had to supplement his diet with nutritional drinks but are struggling to gain insurance coverage.
Coping as a parent
Tina and Phil recently enrolled Jacob at White Pine Academy/Leaf River Academy in Deer Creek, a school for autistic and special needs children. On top of regular schoolwork, the educators help the kids develop social, behavior and coping skills.
“I’ve been in denial over having to put him there,” Tina admitted. “As a parent with a kid of special needs, putting him there makes you always think, ‘I’m going to be looked at different. I’ll be looked at as if I can’t handle my child.’ I feel like that all the time.”
Those fears occasionally come true when Tina brings Jacob along on shopping errands. When he acts out, Tina becomes the target of stares and whispered words such as, “He just needs to be spanked,” or “He just needs to be disciplined.”
“Obviously, just because kids melt down doesn’t mean they’re not being disciplined,” Tina said. “Kids with special needs have meltdowns. But they don’t see the big picture. And I want to open my mouth so bad some days.”
Trying something new
Last year, during one of Jacob’s appointments at Tri-County Health Care’s behavioral health, Tina and Aaron Larson, M.D., developed a new plan to help Jacob’s sensory issues: occupational therapy (OT).
Jacob attends OT twice a week with Lora Foust, certified occupational therapist, one day on land and one day in the pool for aquatic therapy. Lora works with Jacob in a sensory-rich environment to help him adapt to various textures or movements. They also focus on hand-eye coordination and dabble with light weights in the gym.
“Lora has done wonders for him,” Tina said. “He’s had a couple bad meltdown incidents, and I thought she wouldn’t want him to come back or she’s not gonna want to work with him anymore. She doesn’t let that bother her. Lora always has him come back. She says, ‘You know what? It was a bad day. Everybody’s allowed to have bad days.’”
Lora’s treatment reaches far beyond their appointments at the rehab clinic. Each week, she creates goals that incorporate OT for Jacob to work toward at home. For instance, she challenged Jacob to clean his room twice a week for two weeks straight. As a reward, she treated him to a pizza party.
“That was something he looked forward to,” Tina said. “He made his goal. He worked so hard for that.”
A life changed for the better
Now more than seven months later, consistent OT has made all the difference in Jacob’s life and then some.
“From the time he was little, he would never ever even go near a fish, touch a fish, whatsoever.” Tears welled in Tina’s eyes. “Since he has started working with Lora, he will now touch them. He will go fishing. And that’s all he wants to do.”
Jacob has also begun playing outside in the snow, building with Legos, and washing his own hair in the shower, activities that used to be far out of reach for him.
“He’s hit a lot of milestones since he started OT,” Tina said. “He has had more willpower to learn now than he ever has.”
To further build his behavioral skills, Lora recommended taekwondo at Mid-Minnesota Taekwondo in Wadena. The experience has done wonders for both him and his younger brother, Maverick, who joined with him. Jacob has learned self-respect, as well as how to treat adults and other children with respect.
The road going forward for Jacob will likely contain more setbacks and successes, but Tina is proud of how far her son has come.
“I would never change him for the world because he is made how he is,” Tina said. “He’s the sweetest kid ever. We all have our good days and we all have our bad. He’s just made how he is.”