Joe Irish stands out from the crowd. He’s six-years-old and the fourth of five children in his family. Joe has big captivating eyes, an unstoppable energy and wears a helmet for his own protection. Joe commands attention!
Joy, Joe’s mom, says she knew something wasn’t right even shortly after his birth. “He didn’t snuggle like his siblings,” she says, “And by twelve months, Joe wasn’t waving to people, didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to be held and often cried for no apparent reason.” At his two-year-old checkup, when the doctor thought Joe was there for his 18-month visit, they confirmed what Joy had known all along – something was wrong.
At age two, Joe was diagnosed with autism. At that time, he didn’t sleep much, screamed about 20 out of the 24 hours in a day and communicated by wrapping himself around people’s legs and biting them. Joy and her husband Wade say this era of their lives was simply exhausting. Not only did they have another young baby in the house, but Joy also had to quit her job teaching Kindergarten, and they had to pull their older kids out of their private school. Joy took the day shift with Joe, and Wade took the night shift.
The Irish family worked hard to make the best of their circumstances. “We knew the stats about failed marriages of parents who had kids with disability, and we were not going to be one of those couples,” Joy says. “It was hard, but we were determined to make time for each other, even if it was just going upstairs for a few minutes together.”
“We knew the stats about failed marriages of parents who had kids with disability, and we were not going to be one of those couples.”
Things improved for Joe when he began attending occupational, physical and speech therapy. He was still non-verbal, but the family began seeing small sensory improvements. At age three, Joe began attending the early childhood special education preschool in their area, and Joy began homeschooling the other children while Joe was in school.
That’s when the Irish family met Lift.
In 2013, a friend of the family told Joy about BOOST, Lift’s monthly program for families living with disability. At first, they only went to a few monthly events. “It became huge for us,” Joy says. “We met people and began friendships with people who truly accepted and appreciated us for who we are, not just for being ‘that big family with the kids.’ We weren’t looked at as odd because of Joe. We could be ourselves and let our guard down.”
Joy admits they were almost dragged to their first Lift Disability Network summer Breakaway Camp, because they just couldn’t picture how the family could make it work because of Joe’s severe autism. “Now we live for it!” Joy says. “The volunteers love Joe and us. They are so good with him, and we are grateful for the chance it gives us to truly relax.”
Joy was able to go back to work as a secondary school Science teacher when Joe started consistently sleeping better at night. And her husband Wade was able to transfer his job as an elementary school teacher to a school much closer to home. Joe can now follow simple directions, and he understands people much better. He’s still not verbal, but he has his ways of communicating – like getting his shoe, the car keys and pulling on someone when he wants to go out for a drive. The family also has a care agency come to the home often, so that Joy and Wade can care for their other children and the household and know someone is concentrated on Joe’s needs. Additionally, Joy and Wade have been slowly paying for a service dog for Joe, and soon they will reach their financial goal and a dog can be trained for him.
This past year, one of the other Irish children, Gracie, fell from a swing set, and spent about two weeks in the hospital on two different occasions. “This has been a hard season for our family,” Joy says. Gracie suffered a brain injury and has had some lasting memory and neurological complications. Thankfully, she is slowly improving. Soon, they are hoping to move Gracie from being wheelchair bound to utilizing a walker.
“Lift is the most genuine group of people with a heart for Jesus that I’ve ever met.”
“God has taught me never to say never and never to judge,” Joy says. “Wade and I have both been given an appreciation to think about what other people are walking through, because you just don’t know.” Having often faced disapproving looks from strangers and the assumption that she and Wade must have done something wrong to have a child with autism, Joy values the atmosphere of Lift Disability Network. “Lift is the most genuine group of people with a heart for Jesus that I’ve ever met,” says Joy. “It really doesn’t matter what your issue or disability is; you can find acceptance there.”
“Joe has eyes that quickly draw you to him and an embrace that wants you to stay awhile.” – Rhonette Hukill
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