Gaining independence

The moment she held newborn son James in her arms, Jennifer Price proclaimed to her mother-in-law Mary Ellen Price, “I’m never going to let him go!”

Now 19 years later, she’s packing up her baby and sending him off to college. While that’s not so different from thousands of moms throughout the state, it’s not something Price always took for granted.

James was a typical 17-month-old toddler — all over the place and learning to master his 20- to 30-word vocabulary when one day “it just all went away, even Ma-Ma and Da-Da.

“He used to go the refrigerator, tap on the door and say ‘juice,’” says Jennifer. “Then he just started laying on the floor in front of the fridge and throwing a tantrum. I couldn’t understand what he wanted. He was crying all the time.”

Jennifer and husband Greg had just moved from Kentucky to Memphis, Tenn., and at first chalked it up to the move and the impending “terrible 2s.” But James continued to withdraw and nothing got better.

“Autism was beginning to come to the forefront (in the media) and then I read an article about it in the Memphis newspaper,” recalls Jennifer.

The Prices flew home to Baton Rouge with James, then 3 years old, and took him to see pediatrician Dr. Leon Bombet.

“He got us in with Dr. Barbara Golden (pediatric neurologist), who confirmed the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder,” says Jennifer.

A job change in 1999 brought the Price family back home to Baton Rouge permanently, and, now armed with a diagnosis, they went to work. James started off with six hours of Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy at the Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation (now the Emerge Center).

“We did all the early intervention,” says Jennifer.

The youngster then attended Country Day School until the fourth grade and went on to Cypress Heights for two years.

The couple then home-schooled James until the Dunham School opened the McKay Academic Center. At Dunham, James played on the varsity golf team, helping it come in second in the state.

“He was one of the top five golfers his junior year,” says a proud Greg.

“It was fun,” adds James, who says he might want to become a golf instructor. Or maybe a video game tester.

These are just a few of the options he can pursue at the College Living Experience in Denver, which helps special needs students go to college and become independent adults. James attended CLE’s summer program last year.

“I learned whether I wanted to live in a dorm or an apartment. I learned to use the light rail. It was fun. I learned to cook and not contaminate food,” says James proudly. “We (culinary students at Emily Griffith Opportunity School) would cook one day a week for the other students.”

When he returned to Baton Rouge, James got a job as a courtesy clerk at Fresh Market, where he worked until he left for Denver on Friday.

He plans to come back to work over the Christmas holidays.

“Not everybody is meant to go to college,” says Jennifer. “People need to learn vocational skills. If we invest now, they’ll be able to be independent and support themselves … achieve a level of self-worth.”

Is he going to miss his younger siblings, brother Chandler and sister Avery? “No, I’ll be glad to be away from them for awhile,” says James. “… I’m just being honest.”

But when dad asks, “So who’s going to drive you around?” referring to Chandler, who sometimes doubles as chauffeur, James reconsiders. “Good point.”

He doesn’t hesitate to say he’ll miss his cat, YoYo. “She’s the sweetest.” And, of course, mom and dad.

“It’s easy to get to Denver, there’s a direct flight from New Orleans,” adds Greg. “I’m a little nervous, but I went away to school so I think it’ll be good for him.”

“I’m nervous but I know he’ll gain a lot of independence,” says Jennifer. “We’re experiencing the same thing as every other parent sending their child off to college. We’re so proud. This is about the most normal emotion I’ve had in a long time … it’s exciting.”