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School helped woman become a normal mommy
Challenged Child and Friends graduates Hunter Jones, left, 6, and Ryan Aldridge, 5, holds hands after getting out of school at Wauka Mountain Elementary School. Jones and Aldridge became friends while attending preschool at Challenged Child. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Donna Aldridge now feels like a “normal mommy.”

Three years ago, when her son, Ryan, was diagnosed with autism, Aldridge was not sure she would ever feel that way.

Most of Aldridge’s life then revolved around keeping her 2-year-old son calm and his routine regular. No one understood the family’s situation. The Aldridges eventually had to stop going to church, and even family visits were rare.

Before he was enrolled in Challenged Child and Friends, Ryan had hardly any communication skills.

“Like if you said, ‘Ryan, come here,’ he’d just look at you ... it (was) like you were speaking a foreign language,” Donna Aldridge said.

Ryan’s neurobiological disorder was such that he could only drink from bottles with nipples and ate only pureed foods.

If there was a lump in Ryan’s oatmeal or the kids were too loud at his play group, Ryan would vomit. The nervous reaction prevented the family’s church nursery from keeping Ryan during services.

“They used to call me ‘the vomit queen’ in MOMS club,” Donna Aldridge said.

The result of managing her son’s disorder was a socially isolating routine for Donna Aldridge.

“Nobody really understood what we were going through, so that’s where Challenged Child came in,” she said.

When Ryan was 18 months old, Aldridge found out about Challenged Child and Friends through the state-run program Babies Can’t Wait. The school offered the Aldridge family its first chance at normalcy.

Aldridge was shocked at the school’s willingness to deal with any of Ryan’s issues. Challenged Child was the first place to show the Aldridges “complete and total love and acceptance from the beginning,” she said.

“I was so used to people calling me and saying, ‘well, your child threw up, we can’t take him,’” Aldridge recalled. “And I remember being at the intake interview. I’m like, ‘Well, what if he throws up?’ They’re like, ‘We’ll clean it up.’”

Over the next three years, the occupational therapists at Challenged Child and Friends helped Ryan progress from a child who could not stand social situations to one who had a “girlfriend” at summer camp. He now eats solid foods and has progressed from only drinking out of a bottle to being able to drink through a straw.

On May 1, Ryan turned 5. Two days later, he graduated from Challenged Child and Friends. Today, he’s a student at Wauka Mountain Elementary School.

“My kid’s able to go to Publix and not melt down,” Aldridge said. “... This is like my pinnacle of achievement, because I’m like a normal mommy, thanks to Challenged Child.”