Denver Has a Heart of Gold

For the first 36 years of my life, I had effectively zero interactions with special needs children and knew virtually nothing about their needs, other than the biology that may have created their disorder. I was totally uneducated about them, even though I went to dental school and received a masters degree in orthodontics. I had never had a special needs child as a patient and I grew up in an era where special needs children were stigmatized and isolated in their own classroom and never allowed to interact with the “normal” children.

BY Dr. Keith Dressler | December 2020 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

Denver Has a Heart of Gold

My entire life and perspective of differences amongst all human beings changed on August 3, 1994, when my son, Denver, was born. Special needs took on real meaning in my life. Denver was born almost totally deaf, with a little hearing in his right ear, which he wears a hearing aid in. He is totally deaf in his left ear and can’t really hear anything unless his right hearing aid is in. My wife and I were told to learn sign language as he would never talk.

Being hearing impaired was not Denver’s only issue as a newborn. His left eye was turned inward towards his nose. He had three eye surgeries to correct his crossed eye before he was six months old, then he wore corrective glasses. We were told by his doctors he would never see well and being that he couldn’t hear, he would be severely intellectually disabled, a softer term for “mentally retarded”.

My wife and I were determined to give Denver the best chance to develop to his best potential. He went to the speech and and hearing center preschool when he was 18 months through six years old. They taught him sign and speech. He was also seeing physical therapists, occupational therapists, sensory integration therapists, and many other doctors. He had to be taught to walk as his muscles never developed properly. He never crawled on his hands and knees. His crawling was like doing the backstroke, it was always on his back.

I had never heard the word sensory integration in my life before, let alone understood what that meant for Denver and his life and the world he lived in. His life was teaching me so much and opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about.

Somewhere around Denver was five, we were told he was autistic as well. Another category he was put in that I had never heard of before. ADD, ADHD, autism were new buzz words you might hear, but I knew nothing about what they really meant.

Well, Denver defied all odds, for he learned to walk, talk, and could see, even though each eye worked separately and not together, which meant he had zero depth perception. He had no fine motor skills, so writing with proper letter size and space orientation was and still is very difficult for him. However, thank goodness for computers. He types wonderfully, which gives him a great tool for communicating. 

I would like to share with you what all these things meant in Denver’s world and in mine. I’m sure my wife has way more stories than me, but these are the ones I remember best. Denver interprets the world as black and white and no gray. He was four years old when once, I was bathing him in the bathtub. He had asked me earlier why he had to take a bath. I explained he was dirty. While in the tub, he started drinking the water and I said, don’t drink the water, it is dirty. He asked me, how am I becoming clean by taking a bath? Another time when Denver was seven, I bought an SUV, and when I picked Denver up, I said jump in the back seat. He opened the back door and said, Daddy don’t leave me; I can’t jump this high. When he was 12 years old, we were on vacation; while bathing, Denver got into a hot tub with a huge sign – 10-person limit. The next thing I knew, I heard him screaming at a lady who got into the hot tub holding her infant. She made 10, and the infant 11.

Because of Denver’s sensory integration, he does not like to be touched, and textures of foods, clothes he wears, and others really matter to him. As strange as this may seem with him being virtually deaf, he cannot stand to be in a loud room. It over-sensitizes him. Eating out used to be difficult as he freaked out if different foods touched each other, or the restaurant was too loud. He would tell the waitress to bring him each food item on a separate plate – or ask if they could make an announcement and tell everyone in the restaurant to whisper, as the noise was bothering him. Or he might just suddenly stand on his chair and get everyone’s attention in the restaurant and lecture them that they needed to be quieter as the noise was driving him nuts. He has outgrown and better understands how to cope now as an adult – because he loves eating out. But for most of his developmental life, eating out was a challenge, and I never knew what to expect from him.

While on the topic of not understanding social norms or behaviors, we were all at a political fundraiser and waiting on the introduction of the political figure. All of a sudden, we (thousands) heard a bell ringing signaling for us to stop talking and the introduction of the political figure. Much to my amazement, it was Denver on stage getting everyone’s attention so he could tell them about his brand-new digital hearing aid and to be careful around him, as he could not get it wet and it would cost him $5,000 to get a new one and his parents would be very upset.

Some of the toughest times as a parent come because these conditions are in their infancy of being understood and controlled. What this means is trial and error with medications and, in my experience, medications work for a period of time and, for whatever reason, stop working and need to be changed. Because you never know when they may stop working, you cannot accurately predict behavior or perceived misbehavior. Making things tougher: behaviors also vary, or become erratic every change of a season. In Denver’s case, he becomes very manic when the seasons change, even today.

Heart of Gold

What I can tell you about Denver, is that he has a heart of gold. When in middle and high school, he used to bring every member of the football team chewing gum and hand it out each day before practice. Every player loved him. At 16, I taught him how to write a check and got him a checking account that required two signatures, mine and his, to be valid. It had a few hundred dollars in it, but was overdraft-protected by my account. I got a call from the bank saying Denver had overdrawn his account by $4,500. I said that is impossible, I have his checkbook locked up and I didn’t counter-sign anything. They told me he bought $4,700 of oranges online from a band fundraiser. The bank told me they couldn’t control online purchases and they didn’t need double signatures. When I got home, Denver explained he did buy them and wanted to give some to poorer children at school, and that he wanted to take some to the homeless shelter, Chattanooga food bank, and give some to the work out facility where he works out so everyone would be able to enjoy a free Orange after their workout. My heart melted but I had to try my best to explain excessiveness. Denver said, we can afford it so why not? He bought 100% of the band’s allocation of Oranges.

Mainstreamed

Denver was mainstreamed in public schools, which always provided him an interpreter. He used that individual as a personal assistant as he didn’t want that individual signing to him. He wanted to try and listen. He was found to be more of an auditory learner. That makes things tough as we may be talking about teeth and he thinks/hears feet and misinterprets the conversation. What we learned and asked of the school was to stay with same assistant every year to provide stability and consistency. There was too much of a learning curve if they changed this person every year. The school agreed, and I feel this led to the best outcome for him.

I have a passion for tennis and nothing thrilled me more when Denver asked me, when he was 10 and a half, if he could take tennis lessons. I knew this was going to be a real challenge due to his sight and lack of fine motor skills. The pro told me the best way to teach him would be for him to hold the racket with both hands on all shots. After six months of tennis lessons, his eye doctor said to us Denver’s vision had really improved and both eyes are working together for the first time and he was beginning to see some depth. We had tried four years of vision therapy a few years earlier, with no improvement and now, major improvement with six months of tennis lessons. Denver continues his weekly lessons and I have enjoyed being his doubles partner in various leagues we have participated in. We have even enjoyed winning one league twice.

Back to his heart of gold, he participated in a tournament as a teenager and bought grip (wrapping over handle of racket) that he handed out to every boy and girl participant. It was something he wanted to do and thankfully, was only $150, so I told him I thought that would be nice. 

Independent Living Skills

As his high school days were ending, my wife and I became concerned about Denver’s independent living skills and how was he going to be able to learn these. He didn’t drive, he didn’t last at any volunteer job he tried, as most did not understand how to manage a special needs individual—and more important, did not want to learn how. We were blessed that a house with a guest house came on the market that we purchased.

Denver has lived independently in that house for almost eight years now. He can cook for himself, take his meds on his own, buys what he needs online, is much better budgeting but can go crazy buying stuff when he gets manic during the change of the seasons. His gift is math and science and he will never deviate from rules he is given. He has been doing my accounting in my office since he graduated high school. He does what I was having a full-time accounting person do in two half-days a week, telling me I do not have enough work for him to do. He goes into his office, closes the door, follows all the rules he was taught, writes checks, does payroll, pays all taxes, reconciles all checking/savings accounts, as well as all credit card statements and very rarely makes a mistake. This only occurs during medication adjustments.

I feel so blessed to have Denver as my son because there is no way I would have been able to understand all these differences to the degree I do today without having him a significant part of my life. I credit him with me becoming a much more spiritual, empathetic human being, and a better healthcare provider of and for very special human beings. Here’s to you Denver, my special blessing 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr. Keith Dressler is an orthodontist living in Chattanooga with his wife Laura Lea and son Denver. His son has served as his personal tutor and mentor in furthering his understanding of neurodiversity. He is the Chairman and CEO of Rhinogram, a virtual care platform that promotes patient and provider communications. 

Read the article here.