LAKE TWP. — Jacob Gleco stood next to his mother amused watching big brother Mitchell learn a new exercise atop a blue-eyed pony.
“Mom, I think Mitchell forgets how to get off the horse,” 12-year-old Jacob whispered to his mother, Alice Gleco, before he returned to staring glumly at the ground and pacing.
“I wish I could get inside that head of his,” Alice Gleco said softly looking toward her son who has autism.
Mother’s Day is just a little sweeter for Alice Gleco each year, as it takes extra effort raising her two boys. Her sons were identified at young ages as having Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), a form of autism.
As she realized caring for her sons would take more effort than she expected, Gleco, of Harveys Lake, gave up a career as an elementary school teacher to raise them.
She home-schools them, takes them every week to horseback riding lessons at Royal Rock Equestrian Center in Lake Township, guitar classes, archery lessons and special outings with other children through the local autism support group SAFE.
Leaving the teaching career behind was a simple decision to make, she said.
“I’m their mother,” Gleco said. “That’s what I’m supposed to do, isn’t it?”
Gleco and her husband, Mike, did not know their oldest boy had autism until he was about 4 years old when, at the suggestion of his speech therapist, they connected with a neurological pediatrician.
“It kind of pieced it all together,” Gleco said.
At 2 years old Mitchell, who turns 15 this month, could say only two words, “mama” and “dada.” Everything else was “baaagh,” Gleco said.
Mitchell never got dizzy after spinning in circles, and he obsessed with keeping things in order. Gleco and her husband found his behavior unusual, but did not suspect it was due to a developmental disorder.
“He loved to line up cars and books and put them all in a neat, nice row,” Gleco said, traits she later found are common symptoms of PDD.
With the right kind of attention, many children with autism potentially can develop meaningful relationships, succeed academically and become contributing members of society.
Jacob and Mitchell both have their strengths when it comes to school work, and their riding instructor at Royal Rock, Carrie Kieczkajlo-Sisson, said the boys are catching on quickly.
They started taking lessons back in December, and already they ride off the lead line and give novice-level commands to guide the horses in patterns around the arena.
As Jacob took the reins for his lesson, Mitchell slinked off into the stable to chat up several young ladies grooming their horses before their own riding lessons.
Mitchell swears he’s much more interested in playing video games than with girls, his mother said. But the giggles that echoed into the riding arena tell a different story: Mitchell Gleco is a charmer.
Like the Gleco brothers, Maria Ramos’ children have an autism spectrum disorder.
Because autistic disorders are wildly complex, doctors have established a range of developmental disorders that fit under one umbrella called autism spectrum disorders.
These disorders include:
• Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS);
• Autistic disorder;
• Asperger disorder.
Ramos’ oldest son, Juan Ramos III, 19, and daughter Kristina, 8, both are “on the spectrum” Ramos said.
Maria and her husband, Juan II, moved to Ashley from Puerto Rico in 2001 when Juan II, a U.S. Department of Defense employee, came to Pennsylvania to work for the VA Hospital in Plains Township.
Juan III was 6 years old at the time, and Maria Ramos knew nothing of autism.
Her son often threw tantrums, he did not speak, he would slap his own face and thunk his head on the floor.
“It was very stressing,” Ramos said. “It got to the point that I didn’t want to go anywhere, even to visit family.”
She believed something was wrong with her son, but worried what others would think, she said.
“I was afraid people would think that he was a brat and I don’t know how to raise him,” Ramos said.
Ramos learned of SAFE, which stands for Supporting Autism and Families Everywhere, based in Wilkes-Barre Township, and found solace in knowing other families understood her struggle, hard work and how much she cared for her children.
“It helped me out a lot,” Ramos said. “Just knowing I was not by myself, it helped to get out of the house.”
Their third child, David, 6, is developing typically.
Now, Juan III has meaningful conversations with others and can get just about anywhere in Luzerne County by taking the bus.
He goes to social-skill training classes and does volunteer work during the afternoons at the Greenhouse Center Clubhouse in Wilkes-Barre. Juan tells his mother he is now learning to speak on the phone and “do paperwork,” she said.
Juan loves to watch talk shows and the news, and he’s an avid fan of the Steve Corbett Show on WILK Radio, saying he likes Corbett’s take on the region’s current events.
He’s also a weather buff, and on Thursday he predicted Mother’s Day will be warm, mostly sunny with slight chance of a shower.
Kristina Ramos attends regular classes in the Hanover Area School District. She takes speech and vision therapy classes a few times per week, but otherwise, she’s a straight-A student, Ramos said.
In the spirit of Mother’s Day, Ramos took a moment and a deep breath before she said her children have taught her to be compassionate, not just to them, but to everyone.
“Mother’s Day to me, it just means a lot because dealing with my son and my daughter, with their own specific needs,” her voice trailed off. “Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without them.”