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“Mommy, I Love You” Struggling Single Mom and Young Autistic Daughter Bounce Back

Photo: Michael Noble Jr. for The New York Times

By Sara Aridi 

Angela Terrero’s daughter, Astrid, was about a year old when the unsettling behavior began.

She started crawling late and did not respond to her mother when she called her name. She squirmed and cried when Ms. Terrero tried to hug her. Later, when she started walking, she stood on her tiptoes.

Ms. Terrero, 30, a single mother, placed Astrid in one day care center, then another. Both let Astrid go after a few weeks, saying that she was not eating or sleeping. “It was so frustrating,” Ms. Terrero said.

She took Astrid to a pediatrician and, after some evaluation, learned that her daughter had autism. “That’s when I felt completely lost,” Ms. Terrero said in a recent interview.

She was unfamiliar with the disorder, so she searched for answers online. “I was trying to do the best I can to help her,” she said.

Soon after, Astrid, now 5, started undergoing home-based speech therapy, occupational therapy and applied behavior analysis, an intensive form of therapy that uses rewards to encourage positive behavioral changes.

Astrid showed some improvement, but her progress was slow. She often threw tantrums during therapy, and no one could calm her. Hoping that Astrid would respond better in a more structured environment, Ms. Terrero enrolled her in a program for infants and toddlers that provided educational and therapeutic services.

Astrid aged out of the program after she turned 3 with a plan for her to start at a new school for children with autism, but the school was under construction and didn’t open as planned.

Ms. Terrero approached a few other schools, but the academic year had already begun and none had any vacancies. For seven months, Astrid stayed home and did not receive therapy. Ms. Terrero tried teaching her to count and to read the alphabet with the help of instructional videos and tablet applications, but she knew Astrid needed specialized education.

She nearly lost all hope. Astrid’s behavior was so erratic, they could not even play together. “I couldn’t have fun with her,” she said. “It was so hard for me.”

Then, in the spring of 2018, the State Department of Education referred Ms. Terrero to the Kennedy Children’s Center, which runs special education preschools in Manhattan and the Bronx. Ms. Terrero was able to enroll Astrid when the new school year started.

“That’s when I really received help,” she said. “I saw the changes immediately.”

After about a month at the center, Astrid’s tantrums subsided. She learned to communicate better and became more sociable with her classmates, Ms. Terrero said. In the past, Ms. Terrero rarely took Astrid out, fearing that her behavior would draw judgmental looks. But now Astrid calmly plays with other children at playgrounds. “Before, that was impossible,” Ms. Terrero said. “Her behavior has improved a lot.”

The center became a beacon of hope for Ms. Terrero. While Astrid was in class, Ms. Terrero participated in parent workshops and support group sessions that made her feel less alone.

Ms. Terrero had not worked for years while she cared for Astrid. She worked briefly at a beauty salon in Washington Heights last year after she got her cosmetology license. But the hours were long and her family was not always available to babysit. She quit after a month.

Earlier this year, she spotted a flier for a free program at the education center that provided training to become a teaching assistant. The hours coincided with Astrid’s schooling. “It was so convenient,” Ms. Terrero said. “I felt so happy.”

She started the program in February. In May, the Kennedy Children’s Center, an affiliate of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, hired her as a teacher’s aide at its Bronx location. She works with children with special needs, and is no longer anxious about raising Astrid.

“My daughter really inspired me,” she said. “Now I understand things I didn’t know before.”

Astrid aged out of the center over the summer. She is now in a kindergarten class for students with special needs in a school in the Bronx. Her teacher recently told Ms. Terrero that Astrid might soon be eligible for a class that includes students with and without developmental delays — a sign of improvement. “That’s what I really wanted to see,” Ms. Terrero said. “Progress.”

She and Astrid now share a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with one of Ms. Terrero’s sisters, her parents and two of her nephews. In March, her father learned he had prostate cancer and stopped working. He had been the main breadwinner; suddenly, the family worried about paying the rent. Now that she is working again, Ms. Terrero is able to help with groceries, rent and other expenses. She receives $540 a month on behalf of Astrid from the Supplemental Security Income disability program.

In November, Catholic Charities, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $200 from The Fund to buy Visa gift cards for Ms. Terrero. She used them to buy Astrid two pairs of sneakers and a pair of winter boots.

The organization also used $100 to purchase a small trampoline with a handle, similar to one Astrid has used in therapy. It helps improve her coordination, muscle strength and sensory issues. Ms. Terrero said Astrid had often jumped on her bed and off tables at home, and the trampoline gives her a safe way to release energy.

These days, Ms. Terrero is studying for an exam to become a certified teaching assistant. After she takes it, she hopes to enroll in college and eventually become a special-education teacher.

Though she has started to invest in her own career, she remains wholeheartedly devoted to her daughter.

“The free time that I have is for Astrid,” she said. “Everything I do is for her.”

Read the article from The New York Times