A Progressive Melody: Mother & Daughter Scale Highs & Lows of Autism

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
As the lengthy summer days, with bright and balmy evenings, start to wane, parents know the difficulties of transitioning children from a typical malleable summer's day to a regimented school schedule. Some parents, however, face special challenges this time of year.

Master Sgt. Beth Jungk is a 19th Communications Squadron plans and programs manager at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Her daughter Morgan, 14, has been diagnosed with autism, epilepsy, kabuki syndrome and other ailments. Morgan's disabilities mean any deviations from her daily routine can be challenging.

I first met Beth and Morgan while covering the Arkansas Special Olympics in May of 2013. Beth is the head coach and organizer of the base's Special Olympics team, and even though I was only able to interact with the two intermittently over the din and hustle of the three-day event, I saw a close relationship: a mother dedicated to her daughter and a daughter who needs that kind of commitment to not just survive, but mature and grow as a person.

As the school year approached, I thought about how hard it must be for Morgan, who Beth said doesn't understand the concept of time as others do, to go from the loose possibilities of summer to the structured school days of fall. I spent a little over a week documenting the morning routine of Beth and Morgan for her first week of school.

Before the school year started, Beth tried to introduce her daughter to the idea of going back to school, including taking her to North Middle School's orientation night. She said before this year Morgan always liked school, but shows resistance to the idea now. Every time Beth mentioned what Morgan will have to do at school, Morgan said contrarily, "I'm not at school."

Since seemingly simple practices or routines can take a lot of time for kids with autism, Beth wakes Morgan up earlier on days she has to go to school. On summer days and weekends, Morgan often sleeps in and can take longer during the morning routine.

The routine includes waking up, getting dressed and eating breakfast. This sounds simple, but Beth said mornings can be unpredictable depending on how Morgan acts. At 14-years-old, Morgan is maturing and undergoing the same physical and emotional changes all teenagers go through, changes that undoubtedly affect her behavior. Considering all this, I arrived at the Jungk household not knowing what to expect. After all, I had only seen and spoken to Morgan twice and wasn't sure how she would react to me intruding on her life.

Getting a teenager out of bed can be challenging for parents, but getting a teenager with Morgan's disabilities, already resistant to the idea of school, out of bed can be a marathon of patience, repetition and endurance. On the morning of her first day of school, Morgan didn't want to leave her bed, so she hid underneath her pillows. After encouragement from her mother, as well as the family cats, Jax and Bandit, Morgan got up. This is a familiar routine for the cats, which jump onto Morgan's bed every morning when it's time to wake up. Jax, 14-years-old like Morgan, often lies near her while she's getting dressed or if she's upset and hiding.

Once Morgan wakes up, the next step is getting dressed, which provides additional challenges for mother and daughter. Morgan is able to get her clothes and lay them on the bed, but she isn't able to put them on herself, so she gets help from her mother. Beth patiently dresses her 14-year-old daughter in a full outfit every day, and brushes her hair while encouraging her and trying to teach her how to do these tasks herself. One morning Morgan tried to put on a sock but couldn't fit the fabric around her foot. Beth helped her daughter while noting she used to not try putting the socks on at all. Progress is what's important for Beth, and while Morgan may be impaired by disabilities, she has a mother who's dedicated to challenging her and helping her learn new things, even if it's at a slower pace.

The second morning I was at her house, Morgan turned toward my camera and smiled as she was getting her socks and shoes put on. Beth said Morgan is getting more comfortable with me being around, and I'm feeling like I'm getting a better look at her personality, which is very playful.

One morning Morgan waved to me and smiled right after getting out of bed. At times she'd play games with her mother, holding her shoes out to her as an invitation to take them, only to pull them away when Beth reaches for them. Another day, after hiding underneath her pillows, Morgan sprung out of bed and took off running. Her mother chased her to the living room, where she playfully used the table as a barrier. Beth laughed at her daughter's antics, and convinced her to go back to her room. Other times when I was taking a picture, Morgan would look at my camera and say "cheese," with a wide smile and laughter.

When getting dressed for her first day of school, Morgan rebelled at the idea of going and hid under the bed. Beth patiently approached her daughter and talked to her kindly. Eventually Morgan got back up. Later Beth told me when things like this happen it's important not to get angry, "Getting mad or yelling at her won't solve anything. You have to be patient."

Hiding under the bed or other antics can put Morgan behind schedule before the real unpredictable part of the morning - breakfast. Some days Beth lets her daughter choose her breakfast because Morgan can be a picky eater and sometimes eats too little. During her first week of school, Morgan mainly eats spaghetti with chicken nuggets in the morning. Breakfast can take a long time some days, and Beth has to remind Morgan to eat her food many times, all the while getting ready herself.

Even though Morgan doesn't always want to eat, it's imperative she eat in the morning because Beth has to give her daughter several syringes full of medicine for her various ailments. When giving her medicine, Beth tells her daughter what it's for, and Morgan repeats the words. Even though she winces while taking the medicine, Morgan offers no resistance.

When she picks out her food, Morgan is less likely to shut down and can eat relatively quickly, but becomes sidetracked when watching TV. Sometimes she'll recite lines from the show she's watching, and laugh while neglecting her food. After many reminders from her mother, however, she is able to eat most of her food and take all of her medicine.

Sometimes when she is told to eat, Morgan refuses, shuts down and then crawls into her mother's lap while crying, seeking comfort. When she does this, Beth embraces her daughter. Beth told me her daughter does this when she's strongly opposed to something; it's her way of saying "enough." During the week I was with them, Morgan did this twice, and each time her mother hugged her and told her she loved her. Beth's soothing eventually brought Morgan back from her inconsolable state, and it struck me that even though it must be hard for mother and daughter to communicate over so many barriers, a simple act and short, kind words seemed to disarm those barriers and bring the two close.

Throughout the morning Beth often repeats instructions or questions to her daughter, often a dozen times, but does it with patience. She says that it's important to understand people with autism don't process language as quickly or intuitively as other people, and stresses the importance of giving instructions slowly and with patience. Routine is important, and any intrusions upon the routine can have unexpected and unpredictable consequences. Since Beth is in the military, I start to think that mother and daughter have had more intrusions upon their routine than most families would. Beth confirms my thoughts later when she tells me she's looking forward to retirement soon because it will give Morgan more stability.

It's evident to me that Beth, a single mother, has a lot of experience with hectic schedules, juggling personal and professional responsibilities and adapting to unpredictable circumstances. Morgan was first diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy when she was 18 months old and has had complications ever since. It's also evident to me, however, that Beth loves her daughter and is proud of her. She's always telling me about Morgan's quirks and ticks, the little things that make all of us who we are.

For instance, Morgan loves to swing while listening to music. There's a swing in the Jungk's backyard, and swinging back and forth while listening to music with headphones on is her favorite thing to do. She loves it so much, her mother even made an indoor swing for her to use during bad weather. When Morgan swings she also sings loudly. Her singing is out of key because her disabilities have affected her hearing as well as speech. Beth tells me her daughter will swing for hours at a time. When swinging, Morgan becomes so immersed that Beth has to set a timer to remind her to make her daughter use the washroom.

When Morgan swings, she looks and sounds elated, like the swing is her private haven. Sometimes Morgan will want to swing in privacy. One morning, she told Beth "You go now," when we were outside while she was swinging. Beth told me this is what she says when she wants to be alone, a new trait she's been developing. I noticed that Beth isn't often very far from her daughter, who needs the attention and supervision. I wondered if Morgan, who needs a guardian to look out for her, has the same natural teenage impulses to rebel and seek independence most youths do.

Another activity Morgan loves is drawing. One morning Beth showed me the drawings Morgan made during art class, which is Morgan's favorite class. In one picture Morgan was able to fully trace the colors inside the line, a huge accomplishment for an autistic child because they have such difficulty with boundaries.

On the days Beth has Morgan ready for school ahead of time, mother and daughter relax before the bus comes. During this time, Morgan prefers to swing indoors, and Beth either does schoolwork or reads by the window, waiting for the bus. Beth tells me she has learned a lot of ways to manage her responsibilities as a mother, professional and person, including being able to do homework anywhere.

Because I was there, Beth talked to me while her daughter was swinging. Beth told me about her life with Morgan, and why she's passionate about telling her story.

"Things like this aren't going away," she said. She hopes her story and experiences can help other parents. Beth said she remains determined to help Morgan grow. Progress is what she talks about. She doesn't think taking and hiding them from the world or "letting them watch the same TV show for six hours again and again," is the right way to treat kids with disabilities like autism.

"You have to treat them like you would any other kid, give them options, let them make choices," said Beth.

As we waited for the bus to arrive, Beth told me she knows she may be overprotective when it comes to Morgan, but I think one can't begrudge those maternal instincts. Raising any child requires major commitment, but being a single mother raising one with Morgan's disabilities requires extra attention and dedication. After all, even at 14, Morgan's mother still dresses her and can't leave her unsupervised for long.

"It's been us against the world," said Beth.

However, Beth also recognizes Morgan's need for more responsibility, and tries to teach her practical survival skills, like making a meal, putting on socks and shoes or putting away silverware. She said it's hard for her to do sometimes, but she knows Morgan needs to be exposed to the world and not just kept in a life of secure limits.

When the bus arrived the last day of the school week, Beth helped Morgan don her backpack and walked with her out to the bus. She told her daughter goodbye as Morgan climbed the steps and found her seat. When Morgan sat down, Beth waved to her daughter, and Morgan looked back at her mother out the window, waving goodbye.