Autism + Deafness

by Dayna Ault, as told by Clay McGranahan

Connor’s early development was typical. He would babble and had begun to say “mom” and “dada”, and had just started taking his first steps. . . .

Photo of Connor, by Kelly Humble

But, then things began to change. At around 11 months old, Connor stopped talking and began to have difficulty walking. His parents noticed that he stopped responding verbally and would not make eye contact. He began to only eat certain foods, and to use repetitive motions, behaviors. He developed routines which caused him distress, if changed. Life for this family was about to become very different. They were entering the world of autism.

A visit to a developmental doctor in Kansas City, produced a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) diagnosis. The doctor advised them to find therapy for him, and assured them he would probably grow out of it. They began with home “exchange sessions” to help his attention span and focus, and had various tests done, including an MRI, EEG and 2 Auditory Brain Response Tests. At that time, his parents were told that he could hear, but did not process. Tubes were placed in his ears, at age two, to help his balance, so he could learn to walk.

Connor was born in 1993, and the world of autism was very different then. Diagnosis and treatment were hard to find. He was 41⁄2 before he received an official autism diagnosis, and it was a devastating blow to his parents. “It was like we had lost a family member,” says his father, Clay McGranahan. “We began to think of all the things that we thought Connor would never be a part of; marriage, being a dad, going to college, etc. We were young. . . and did not know anyone who had a child with a disability. We actually had a doctor tell us we might need to look at having Connor placed in an institution. It was a rough time with the initial diagnosis.”

Determined to find help for their son, they relocated to a school in Northern Missouri, enrolling Connor at age 2. Sadly, he did not progress, as he was required to meet goals which were beyond Connor’s capabilities. “Goals were to say your name and address, and sing certain songs. Connor was non-verbal and did not communicate,” explained Clay.

After a visit with the State Board of Education for some suggestions, they decided to check out the Special Education program at the Rogersville, Missouri Public School. They went to the first meeting without Connor, “because we were afraid the school would reject him if they met him,” says Clay. Instead, they were greeted by a surprisingly adequate staff of one teacher and her four aides, in a classroom with multiple sensory stations. The school had all of the latest teaching tools, the McGranahans’ had only read about until then. Especially impressive was the school’s vestibular swing, used to help children with sensory issues, balance and spacial awareness.

“The teacher showed us around and then asked where Connor was. All of the staff were eager to meet with him. It blew our mind. We finished our visit, returned home, quit our jobs and prepared to move to Rogersville,” Clay explained.

As luck would have it, Connor’s teacher at his new school, had previously taught at a deaf school, and noticed that Connor exhibited traits of a deaf child. There was nagging suspicion all along, that he had hearing loss, but getting an accurate hearing test had proved to be difficult. Finally, with the help of his Speech Therapist, para, his teacher and a team of helpers at Missouri State Speech and Language Clinic, they were able to establish that he had profound deafness in both ears. He was 6 1⁄2 years old.

Connor and examples of his art work.

By then, what should have been bad news, was actually an answer they had been looking for. Elated to finally have this confirmation, they thanked the audiologist for helping them. “He later told us he was shocked, because no one had ever thanked him for telling them their child was deaf,” said Clay.

With the news that Connor was not hearing, the family began going to sign language classes, learning new ways to communicate with their son. With the support of his family, friends and teachers, Connor graduated from Rogersville high school, and since graduation, has attended a couple of college courses. He currently does volunteer custodial work for a local church where he has natural supports built in. In addition, he creates and exhibits his drawings and paintings, and attends classes at Art Inspired Academy (AIA). Connor also volunteers with AIA and is a mentor for a young boy there. They have a great bond, with the young boy responding well, to Connor’s direction. Connor can’t verbalize to him and the boy can’t sign, but they have an unspoken communication that allows them to work together. Connor also does art work and travels to comic book events and art shows to improve his skills and meet other artists. He also plays golf, bowling and basketball on a local team with his friends.

The McGranahan Family – Connor, Austen, Jamie and Clay
Photo of McGranahans, by Kelly Humble

When asked about Connor’s greatest strength, his father says it is his compassion for others. In addition, he has inspired 3 people to become deaf educators. All are currently practicing, and credit their initial introduction to disabilities and deaf culture to Connor.

His mother, Jamie, shared this story: “One day, early in the diagnosis, Clay stopped in the kitchen and told me ‘we have to redefine success,’ and that has been our life plan ever since, not just for us but for all we come across. Connor has a pretty successful life!”

Connor’s parents have gone on to both work in the disability field. His father, Clay, is the Executive Director of WC Partners, the Senate Bill 40 Board for Webster county. His mother, Jamie, is the Program Manager and Inclusion Specialist of Art Inspired Academy. She directs the agency staff and creative arts vision for the agency, teaches classes and trains staff and volunteers. His sister, Austen recently finished her BSN at MU Sinclair school of nursing and is working on the Neuro-progressive unit at Mercy in Springfield.