Five-year-old Micah Nickel was diagnosed with autism in the spring of 2009.
Immediately, Chris and Jenn Nickel set out to find how to best help their son. The family found the Massachusetts-based Son-Rise program, an organization that looked like the perfect place for Micah.
The first person they spoke to about the program was Brian Nelson, who is a counselor at the organization.
“I explained the program to them,” Nelson said. “And the more we talked, they felt like ‘Wow, Micah would be a great candidate.’”
Student volunteers Nikki Woods, a Saginaw senior, and Clinton Township senior Brittany Hoekstra have spent a lot of time working with Micah.
“We’re working on different goals we set for him every couple months,” Woods said. “Right now, our biggest goals are flexibility, just trying to get him to be more flexible with being with people and also working on his social interaction skills.”
When the Nickels discovered Micah had autism, they created a distraction-free environment in a spare bedroom of their home where Micah spends his day interacting with students like Woods and Hoekstra.
Woods has worked with Micah for a year and a half. When she first met him, Micah would not approach people, Woods said. Recently though, that has all changed.
“He is completely the opposite now,” Woods said. “He hugs you, he gives you kisses, he wants to talk to people, and he wants to see people.”
After only a few months of treatment, Jenn said the changes were incredible. Micah not only began to interact with others, but wanted to interact with others.
“At first we were like, ‘Oh man, he’s becoming a really dependent, high-maintenance child,’” Jenn said. “But we waited so long for that because he was so content to not have anyone play with him.”
Jenn said learning to accept Micah’s condition has been one of their most challenging but important lessons.
“One of the many things I’ve learned is that you can never force a child to come out,” she said. “Even as a mom you can never wish him to drop his autism or to recover from it … It’s something that, when he’s ready in his own time, he’ll make the steps slowly, slowly, slowly, into our world at his own pace, and if he chooses not to, that’s OK.”
-Staff Photographer Paige Calamari contributed to this report