Thursday, July 13, 2017

It takes a village

One year ago today Emelyn started attending ABC’s of ABA. Over the course of this past year, we’ve seen tremendous growth and development. Here are the notable areas we’ve seen:

Self-feeding: Emelyn can feed herself with her fingers, as well as using utensils. It’s not always pretty, but she certainly is proud of herself.

"You want me to use my fingers. I don't think so,
I'm way too sophisticated for that."
Communication: Emelyn still doesn’t have words, but she’s on her way to using an iPad to communicate her needs. She’s also using sign language to say “all done” and “more.” Words may be in her future as her speech therapist is encouraged by the “m” sounds she’s been making.

Walking: Emelyn still requires support, either with a walker, gait trainer, or hand-holding, to walk, but we can honestly say she’s closer than ever to walking independently. When Emelyn started at ABC’s we were lucky to get more than a few steps out of her without her plopping down in protest. ABC’s walks her every single day and collaborates with her physical therapist to be sure they’re using the right techniques to promote independence. Just this week Emelyn has started trying to take steps on her own. We’ve only seen two or so steps at a time, but the fact that she’s wanting to do it is extremely encouraging because what Emelyn wants, Emelyn does.

Watch out, this girl is on a mission.
Fine motor: Emelyn just recently started clapping her hands. She’s also getting the hang of pointing using her index finger. While still inconsistent, she can wave when she wants to as well.

Receptive language: Emelyn’s vocabulary of words she understands has grown tremendously. She’s even following some two-step instructions. She points to our nose, mouth, eyes, ears, and chin. I’m convinced she understands even more than we realize.

Engagement/eye contact: We constantly hear from folks, “I can’t get over how much progress Emelyn is making.” Usually what folks are referring to isn’t her improved mobility or receptive language, it’s her ability to interact with the world. Truly, she’s a completely different child this July versus last July. I remember going to a restaurant with friends last summer and Emelyn stared off into the ceiling mesmerized by the ceiling fans. Despite attempts to get her attention, she remained locked in her own world just staring. This was a frequent occurrence, but not anymore. When we attend church, Emelyn engages with those around us. She holds hands, smiles and giggles, makes eye contact, and responds to her name. Now if we could just get her to refrain from giggling through the prayers.

Head control: A year ago it was not uncommon to see Emelyn’s head fall back several times a minute. This is a major challenge to getting her walking. However, her head control has increased drastically this past year, likely due to her increased walking at ABC’s. As her head control improves, so too does her ability to keep her balance. She still has progress to make before her balance will be at a place where walking is possible, but she’s closer than ever.

Finger chewing: Emelyn, like many of the other DDX3X gals, is a finger chewer. It’s mainly a sensory issue. When Emelyn started at ABC’s we were using a “no-no” which is a brace that prevents her from bending her arm at the elbow. This was an effective way of keeping her finger out of her mouth, but it wasn’t ideal for developing motor skills, especially fine motor skills. We’ve started noticing over the past six months a significant decrease in her finger chewing. In fact, it’s been months since she’s worn her no-no. We do occasionally see an increase in finger chewing, but she’s now easily redirected to other tasks as opposed to mindlessly chewing her finger.

One redirect we've found for finger chewing
is to hand Emelyn a car with wheels she can spin.
Sensory issues: In addition to the decline in finger chewing, we’ve also seen an increase in Emelyn’s tolerance for having her teeth brushed. What used to be a battle is now a fairly effortless task. This was especially helpful when Emelyn went to the dentist for the first time back in January and again yesterday. She was extremely cooperative. Emelyn’s also a teeth grinder and that’s another area we’ve seen decrease tremendously. It’s almost rare for her to grind her teeth now.

Potty training: A year ago I would have never dreamed Emelyn would be in the potty training process, but sure enough, she’s successfully using the potty several times a day. We still have a long road ahead of us, but we’re on the road and that’s pretty exciting.

A proper dismount: Just a few months ago when Emelyn wanted to get off the bed or couch, she just went for it, often head first. There was no consideration for how she went about dismounting, she just went. We’re now seeing her very intentionally turn herself around to go feet first off of furniture and her bed. While it’s a physical skill to execute, it’s a cognitive skill to plan and we think the combination is a pretty big deal.

This is Emelyn's morning sleepyhead look.

Attention span and tantrums: With Emelyn’s new awareness of the world around her we’ve also noticed her attention span has increased. This has helped with tantrums and other escape behaviors. It’s not to say we don’t still have some outbursts, but to some extent, those are to be expected with a non-verbal child. In general, she’s just a happier kid.

Being a sister: This one is probably the greatest of all. Before starting at ABC’s Emelyn paid very little attention to Aubrey. Every so often she might acknowledge Aubrey, but it was inconsistent at best. It was especially hard to watch Aubrey try to engage Emelyn and get little to no reaction. That has completely changed. Emelyn watches Aubrey, laughs at Aubrey, and even plays with Aubrey. With the addition of Hattie, we’ve seen Emelyn quickly form a bond with her new baby sister too. I know this new connection will likely bring on sibling rivalry in the future, but that’s a welcome result of sibling engagement.

It’s been an eye-opening experience reflecting on this past year. We are beyond grateful to ABC’s for believing in our little Emmy. They know she’s far more capable than any assessment or test shows. They see her potential even when we can’t. We’re eagerly anticipating what Emelyn will accomplish in her next year with the loving and caring folks at ABC’s. We’re also so very grateful to the care providers, therapists, grandparents, and others who work with Emelyn on all these new and emerging skills. It’s super cliché, but it seriously takes a village.

One happy middle child.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dear Rare & Beautiful Emelyn

Today, on Rare Disease Day, we celebrate you. With your contagious giggles and larger than life smiles, you bring joy to every person you meet. You do not know your own challenges…you only know your own determination. It’s a determination that motivates us to see blessings where others see mistakes. Science may call it a spelling error, but we know better. We know God doesn’t make mistakes. He knew what he was doing when he spelled your DDX3X gene just a little different. Whether you know it or not, you are on a path to teach our family the true meaning of patience, faith, and hope. You are beautiful and perfect in every way. We are so very blessed to have you as part of our family.

To learn more about DDX3X, meet other little girls with an extra special DDX3X gene, or to donate to research to find treatments for Emelyn and other children with DDX3X, visit

Monday, December 5, 2016

Reflecting on 2016

Everyone I talk to tells me the same thing, “2016 has been such a busy year.” Our family is right there with you. And for that reason you’ll have to excuse my lack of posts this year. While it’s been hard to take the time to create posts, we have found time to be very grateful for our family, especially our sweet Emelyn. Here are just a few things we’ll be giving thanks for as we reflect on Emelyn in 2016:

School: Emelyn continues to make tremendous progress at her new school where she has been since July. I can’t tell you how grateful we are to have found this school. The goals they are working towards each day are truly meaningful to Emelyn’s development and independence. For example, Emelyn is more willing than ever to walk with support, likely because her goals at school include walking in her gait trainer three times a day for seven minutes each time. Once she becomes more stable, which will come with practice, she’ll be walking more independently in the near future. We’ve also seen Emelyn’s ability to feed herself, follow instructions, and make meaningful contact with the world around her improve as a result of the goals they are working towards at her school.

Care team: I joke regularly that Emelyn has an entourage. She has therapists, teachers, care providers, doctors, case workers, and more. Each one of them love and adore her and are constantly plotting with us to be sure we’re doing the best to help her progress towards independence. When Emelyn switched schools her old care provider, Jean, had to find a new position that offered full-time hours. While we were sad to see her go, we were grateful we’ve been able to keep a close relationship with Jean. They now see each other weekly and get to hang out on the weekends about twice a month. It took us a long time to find Jean, but to our surprise finding her replacement was oddly simple. Patience began with us in August and had worked with Emelyn in the infant room at the daycare she went to before it became clear daycare wasn’t a good fit for Emelyn. They’ve picked up right where they left off and buzz around town from school to PT, OT, speech, hippotheraphy, and swim therapy. We’re grateful to have such incredible people as part of “Team Emmy.”

Health: For some children with DDX3X there are sometimes significant health issues that come along with the diagnosis, including seizures, heart problems, eye issues, and more. We’re very grateful that these continue on our radar to look out for, but not a reality for Emelyn. This fall Emelyn had an inpatient EEG (known as an SMU) at UVA. She was a champ as you can see. She looked more like she was at the spa than having 20+ leads glued and then unglued from her head over the course of 24 hours. The test told us that while Emelyn’s brain waves are not typical, there are no signs of seizures. She also had an eye exam that raised no red flags.

Community: Just this weekend I had the opportunity to attend my work Christmas party for our foster parents, adoptive parents, and sponsored residential providers. I brought both girls with me and within minutes of walking in the door was approached by a woman who promptly greeted Emelyn by name. I had never met this woman in my life, but she knew Emelyn. Turns out one of her foster children attended hippotherapy at Healing Strides and she saw Emelyn each week. She asked if it was okay that she had added Emelyn to her church’s prayer list. I, of course, was more than grateful to her and her church for their prayers. And then it happened again, another woman, this time an adoptive parent, approached us. She said when her family walked in her son immediately said, “Look mom, it’s Emelyn!” They attend physical therapy together. In just two hours, with these two families, I was reminded that there is a community of people out there who love Emelyn and pray for her—people who we don’t even know. There are probably a few of you reading this blog right now who we do not know, but know we’re grateful that you are a part of Emelyn’s community.

Church: 2016 has brought a change for us on Sunday mornings. We were sporadic at best when it came to our church attendance, but this year we’ve made church a priority as a family. Just last week Emelyn was doing her normal chatting and giggling during the service, so Patrick got up with her to step outside. One of the church members, an usher that specific Sunday, told him, “Don’t you ever think she’s a bother to anyone. Everyone in this church loves that little girl.” And I truly believe that. There are countless couples and families at our church who cheer Emelyn on as she walks into church, but my favorite are the children who get the biggest thrill out of getting her to smile and giggle.  

Friends: This blog isn’t the only thing that’s been neglected this year. Between work, the girls, working on my masters, the pregnancy, building a house, and moving twice in one year, I haven’t been the best at keeping in touch. That being said, every time I do get a chance to catch up with friends the first topic of conversation is typically Emelyn. Both Patrick and I are grateful to our friends for asking about Emelyn and not growing bored of our constant talk of Emelyn and her progress.

Family: It truly takes a village to raise a child…with or without special needs. If it were not for our family we’d all be a bit frazzled in the Snead household. Our parents chip in to get our girls to and from school each day, watch them on weekends when we need to do school work or work on the house, and feed us when one of us is playing single parent on occasion. Our extended family is only a call away and ready to chip in too when our parents aren’t available.

Diagnosis: Receiving the DDX3X diagnosis for Emelyn last year connected us with so many other families who understand what it’s like to walk in our shoes. Twice this year we’ve had the opportunity to connect in person with some of these wonderful families. We traveled to Chicago back in April, then to Pennsylvania in October. We also did some fundraising this summer and raised $1,700 for the DDX3X Foundation to support research. If you were one of the folks who donated please know how grateful we are for your contribution.

Siblings: Yes, you read that correctly, that’s plural. Aubrey and Emelyn will welcome a new little brother or sister next month. Aubrey’s an amazing sister to Emelyn and we figured, why not add another super sibling to “Team Emmy.” Life in 2017 may get a little busier, but we’re grateful to fill our home with even more love.

As our family looks back at 2016 we’re grateful to have you as a part of our journey and as part of “Team Emmy.” Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

New diagnosis, new therapy, new opportunities…

We’ve had our fair share of diagnosis days with Emelyn. Some were scary, some were puzzling, and some were welcomed with open arms. In June we headed to UVa with Emelyn to see her developmental pediatrician, Dr. Norwood. Our major goal at that appointment was to officially have Emelyn diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Why? Is an additional label really necessary? We felt it was and so did Dr. Norwood.

Prior to our appointment we spent time documenting Emelyn’s communication, behavior, and socialization skills/deficits to help make a case for the diagnosis. These are the criteria, as outlined in the DSM-V, medical professionals use to diagnose ASD. After having several people say, “Autism – Emelyn doesn’t have autism,” I thought we might be in for a battle. With four pages of notes, we were ready. Turns out Dr. Norwood had been thinking of an autism diagnosis for Emelyn since he first met her, but wanted us to first uncover the genetic components of her delays.

While Dr. Norwood had been thinking an ASD was in Emelyn’s future, it really hadn’t entered our mind until we visited Chicago in April. It was only after meeting several thriving girls with DDX3X that we realized why they were making the strides they were, especially in the area of communication – they had intensive applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy (they too, often, but not always, had an ASD diagnosis). In looking at the original study (and only study at this point) published about the DDX3X mutation, 53% of girls have documented “behavior problems” such as ASD. As I learned more about ABA therapy it started to make sense why it was helping these girls and why it would have the potential to help Emelyn as well.

Upon receiving Emelyn’s ASD diagnosis, we immediately began the process of enrolling her at ABCs of ABA which is an ABA-based clinic. In addition to having to have the ASD diagnosis to do this, it also meant we had to withdraw Emelyn from Salem’s special education preschool program. At ABCs Emelyn receives treatment five days a week for just over four hours each day. While it’s called a clinic by insurance and medical standards, it looks and feels like a preschool setting. Emelyn has a team of ABA therapist/technicians who work with her day after day to overcome barriers to communicating, socializing, and learning. For each child at ABCs, just like for every child with ASD, the barriers are different. Emelyn’s plan of care is specific to her and feeds off of her other therapy goals.

Emelyn’s ABA therapy is built around positive reinforcement, which sometimes is just a hug or encouraging “yeah, Emmy – you did it!” and sometimes it’s a chance to splash in water after walking ten steps in her gait trainer. What I can tell you is we’ve seen remarkable changes in Emelyn in the eight weeks since she started there. She’s using her hands more, she’s become much more in tune to her surroundings and other people, and she’s starting to use her iPad to make choices between two different options. These are things we’ve been working on for more than a year now with little success, but in eight weeks at ABCs she’s made huge strides.

It’s not uncommon to pick Emelyn (or Emmy as she’s affectionately called at ABCs) up from school and hear, “She’s mad at us today. We really worked her hard.” Yet the next morning her smiles and giggles tell us she’s ready to go back for another day of hard work and cheers from her peers and therapists. Just saying the word school lights up her eyes.  

It's easy to see why one of the moms at
told me her son said, "Emmy just
laugh and laugh and laugh." 
While receiving an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis may have previously sounded scary to us, we welcomed this diagnosis because of the opportunity it offers Emelyn to reach her full potential. We still remain hopeful that Emelyn will one-day be able to communicate with us, and we feel ABA therapy has the best potential to help her reach this goal.      

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Advancing research

In Chicago we heard from UCSF neurologist Dr. Sherr, Franklin & Marshall College neuroscientist Dr. Jinks, and University of Queensland neuroscientist Dr. Richards about their research around our daughters’ DDX3X mutation. While each of these researchers, along with their wicked smart student researchers, are approaching their research in different ways, they’re all collaborating and sharing information. I wish I could explain exactly what each one of these teams are working on, but I’ll be really honest and say tenth grade biology was more than 18 years ago and much of what they talked about went way over my head.

Dr. Jinks came over and chatted with Patrick, Emelyn, and I
about his research prior to his presentation. 
Here is what I can tell you though, the ultimate goals of the research over the next few years are:
(1)    Understand the biology of the condition
(2)    Test whether we can (and by how much) improve the condition with post-natal intervention
(3)    Develop drugs or other approaches to treat the condition

To achieve these goals, these researchers and their teams will need to create a mouse model where the mice are bread with the DDX3X mutation. The researchers will then attempt to answer questions like…Can the DDX3X mutated gene be replaced with a non-mutated DDX3X gene to essentially reverse the condition? Is the DDX3X mutated gene too active, not active enough, or inappropriately active? Are there other similar gene mutations that can guide their DDX3X research or can efforts be combined? Just to name a few.

Currently, the researchers are working off some existing funding, but their funds are very limited. To create the mouse model will require new funding. We’re looking at needing to raise around $225,000 to fund the next two years of research. While grants may be an option, the best chance at making this research happen comes from us—the moms, dads, families, and friends of our DDX3X girls.

We’ve been told by the researchers that the DDX3X families are some of the most active and engaged families they’ve come across. This condition is so newly discovered, yet we already have an extremely active private Facebook group, a website (, and a foundation (The DDX3X Foundation Fund). According to Global Genes, approximately 50% of rare diseases do not have a disease specific foundation supporting or researching their rare disease. To say we are blessed to be a part of this very special group would be an understatement!

Along our journey, so many people have asked how they can help support us. If you’re one of those people and in a position to help, here are a few ways you can support the effort:
  • Give a little, get a lot! Our sweet, kind Aubrey has also been asking, “How can I help my sister and her friends?” This summer she’s on a mission. We’ve ordered DDX3X wristbands to help Aubrey with her fundraising efforts. She’s asking for a minimum donation of $5. Since our family paid for the wristbands, 100% of the funds Aubrey raises will go straight to the DDX3X Foundation Fund. Her goal is to raise $1,000 before school goes back in September. Maybe even better than the wristband, is that each donation also gets you a picture of Emelyn and Aubrey from their latest photo session.
  • Make it tax deductible! If you’re interested in making a tax deductible gift, you have two options. Since the DDX3X Foundation Fund is a 501(c)3 non-profit, your donation is tax deductible. You can donate directly on the site, just click on the Donate button in the top right corner to make a donation to The DDX3X Foundation Fund. Or you can give (or mail) Aubrey a check, made payable to The Delaware Community Foundation with DDX3X Foundation in the memo line. If you need our new address (we moved in March), please email me. I’ll submit all the checks in one batch once we have several and The Delaware Community Foundation will send you out a tax letter acknowledging your donation. And Aubrey will gladly send you’re a DDX3X wristband and photo of her and her sister.

Aubrey's assembling bags with a DDX3X wristband
and a picture of Emelyn and her.
Many of the families are banding together to raise funds and we’re excited to be doing our part. I’ll be sure to update you on our fundraising efforts. And as we learn more from the researchers, I’ll be sure to share. Until then, I’ll be brushing up on my biology.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

My kid doesn’t have sensory processing issues… or does she?

I was asked by the school’s occupational therapist when we began the school entry process if Emelyn had sensory processing issues. I responded with a quick, “No,” and didn’t think too much about it. In my mind, sensory processing disorder was about avoidance. When Aubrey was little, like many kids, she couldn’t stand the feeling of grass or sand. And if a shirt rubbed her the wrong way, she refused to wear it. That’s pretty typical and something most kids outgrow. Because Emelyn never had those issues, I just assumed she had no difficulties with sensory processing, but I was quite wrong. Emelyn does have sensory processing issues, they’re just on the other end of the spectrum. Emelyn is a sensory seeker, as are most of the other young ladies with the DDX3X diagnosis. What does that mean?

Instead of shying away from textures, Emelyn actually seeks these things out. She is what is known as hyposensitive, i.e. she registers sensations less intensely than you or I. She loves splashing in water, swinging through the air, playing instruments, sucking her finger, grinding her teeth, running her fingers through the grass, etc. Emelyn also has a very high tolerance for pain and a constant need to knock on and feel the world around her.

Bath time is one of Emelyn's very favorite times. She can
splash around long after the water turns cold.
Many of us have typical sensory input, that is, the little receptors in our muscles give the appropriate signals from our muscles to our brains (and vice versa) about where we are in space. For children like Emelyn, with poor sensory input, she’s not quite sure where she is in space because her muscles don’t communicate to her brain (and vice versa) as efficiently as yours and mine. In other words, she has poor body awareness.

It was on our trip to Chicago that we really learned the significance of sensory processing and how it can hold a child back. Lauren Abel, the founder of The Next Steps Academy in Houston, Texas, spoke to us about how her school addresses sensory processing, and uses ABA (applied behavioral analysis) therapy, to help children move from the primitive parts of their brain to the more advanced parts of their brains where learning happens. Lauren sat down and talked with Patrick, Emelyn, and I for nearly an hour, and I soaked up every bit of information she offered. She played with Emelyn’s feet and hands, she interacted with her, and she certainly helped Patrick and I better understand how sensory processing affects Emelyn.   
Emelyn's curled foot is a result of her immature sensory
system. It's proof that her infant reflexes are still intact. 
After that conversation, I would say Emelyn’s sensory processing issues are quite pronounced. As she ages, I imagine we’ll continue to see other sensory processing issues arise, especially if we don’t intervene. As I’m finding with most of the other young ladies with DDX3X, therapy is a key to addressing sensory issues. Just this past week we started a new therapy to address Emelyn’s sensory issues. While she’s been in occupational therapy since she was about 18 months old, we’re taking a different approach with different goals.

This first major goal of this new therapy is helping eliminate (or at least lessen) Emelyn’s infant or primitive reflexes. When you hold a newborn baby and place your finger in her palm, what does she do? She wraps her little fingers around your finger. This is an example of an infant reflex. As a baby grows, her sensory system develops and these reflexes go away to allow for more advanced sensory skills to develop. For Emelyn, because these very basic sensory issues are still affecting her, she is not able to develop to more advanced sensory skills, such as body awareness, hand-eye coordination, and motor planning.

As you can see, Emelyn curls her fingers
around my finger just as an infant would.
A second major goal of therapy is to work on Emelyn’s vestibular and proprioceptive senses. While you may only talk about the five senses in grade school. These are like the sixth and seventh senses. The vestibular sense helps with movement and balance. It tells our body and head where we are in relation to earth. It helps generate muscle tone, which we know in Emelyn is low. The proprioceptive sense helps tell our muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue about position, such as, “Are you stretching or contracting?” As you can imagine, when these senses are out-of-sync, they have a profound effect on body awareness, motor planning, postural stability, gravitational security, movement and balance, auditory-language processing, visual-spatial processing, and muscle tone. 
As we progress over the summer with this new therapy, I’ll be sure to share the progress. I’m very optimistic we can help Miss Emelyn work through her immature sensory issues to achieve more advanced learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about sensory processing issues, I highly recommend a book that was recommended to me by another DDX3X mom: The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Stock Kranowitz 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Step-step, Emelyn

I've been long overdue with this post. Last month, Emelyn finally (after five months of waiting) has a gait trainer!
Emelyn cruising in her gait trainer out in the cul de sac.
Prior to the arrival of Emelyn's gait trainer, we had a borrowed gait trainer for a month or so thanks for CATS (Children’s Assistive Technology Service), but it’s not the one Emelyn really needed. The borrowed on was a little too restrictive and didn’t quite have the right hand/arm supports. But her new one, as Goldilocks would say, “Is just right.” And it couldn’t have come soon enough, because Emelyn is ready to go...well as long as there’s water at the end of the journey. So, I’ll stop typing now and give the people what they want…Emelyn cruising.
That giggle at the beginning…it’s just too much!
And those little legs in that bathing suit. Step-step, Emelyn.
So, what is a gait trainer? As you can see from the photos, it’s a wheeled device. It’s intended for individuals (children or adults) with physical disabilities, to provide the opportunity to improve walking ability. This allows Emelyn to be more independent as she practices walking. Used properly, it will help her learn to walk the right way.
As many of you know, I’m not determined that Emelyn walk independently. I’m much more determined that she have the right tools to communicate with us efficiently. However, I would love to see Emelyn be able to use her gait trainer to walk into school next school year. It doesn’t have to be the first day, but maybe by this time next year. I won’t be crushed if it doesn’t happen, but I like working towards a goal. I wonder if Emelyn feels the same way…