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Fair brings families, help together

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Tom and Patty McManus realized something was different when their son was in the second grade. They'd noticed several signs in the months leading up to the diagnosis, but as their son Chris reached 7 years old, they learned he had Asperger's -- a type of high-functioning Autism.

"We had a conference with (Chris' teacher) and said 'we can't keep going the way we're going. Doing the same thing over and over isn't working,'" Ms. McManus said.

The symptoms had been building.

"He wasn't getting his work done at all and he wouldn't focus on anything," Ms. McManus said. "He had no interest in other kids."

After doing some research on their own, the McManuses approached Chris' teacher with the possibility that he might have Asperger's. It wasn't until the McManus' brought it up that things began to get better.

That conversation some three ago changed life as the McManus family knew it. They began to embrace the new normal of working with Chris and later their 6-year-old daughter, Katie, who was also diagnosed with Asperger's.

Now, Master Sgt. Tom McManus is as an acting first sergeant for the 31st Combat Communication Squadron at Tinker, where the McManuses have lived for two years. They're one of about more than 200 families at Tinker with special needs family members. Recently, these families received some help.

The first ever Info Referral and Fun Fair came together in August, to help special needs families by pooling resources. Several on-base organizations were present, including Family Advocacy, the 72nd Medical Group and the Airmen and Family Readiness Center, which helped bring it all together.

Ten off-base organizations also fielded booths at the Tinker Youth Center event, to display their services in occupational therapy, developmental disabilities, speech pathology and physical therapy among other services.

Sergeant McManus was pleased with the special needs event, while noting the need for enhanced awareness for special needs families in the Air Force. He compares the military's past progress in tearing dissolving down racial and gender barriers to the current frontier of special needs families. Events like the one on Saturday help the general populace understand unique challenges special needs families face, as well as assist the families themselves.

Also, whatever resources Sergeant McManus can log away to help other Airmen is well worth it, he said.

For the Spencer family, educating the public about the challenges special needs families face is crucial. Virginia Spencer sits in the Tinker Youth Center with her husband Brendan and their five children, crowded around a cupcake-decorating table. A year and a half ago the Spencer's 6 year old, Avagrace, began having seizures. Doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy and the family's been on a different trajectory ever since. Because of Grace's condition, she can no longer attend public school, or even be left alone for even a brief time.

Brendan, a staff sergeant and radar maintainer for the 552nd Air Control Wing, was slated to relocate to Japan with his family, but couldn't move due to the complications of being overseas with a special needs child, he said. With their required enrollment in the Exceptional Family Member Program, they're now limited in deployment and relocation opportunities, Sergeant Spencer said.

The Air Force is learning how to better help special needs families, but the Spencers agree there's room to grow.

"I would hope that there would be more support as far as professional understanding," Ms. Spencer said. "We know (my husband's) job is first and foremost but we would like that our daughter's epilepsy wouldn't be a hindrance."

The Spencers learned about an epilepsy support group during the event on Saturday, which they hope will be helpful for their family. Oklahoma is one of the few states without a devoted epilepsy center, with the closest being in Dallas. Any resources they can find locally are helpful for a condition that Ms. Spencer says the public doesn't know much about.

"People don't understand a lot about epilepsy," she said, noting that some still think it's appropriate to place something in an epileptic's mouth while they're seizing. In fact you shouldn't put anything in a person's mouth, Ms. Spencer said.

Overall special needs families should take note from the event: they're not alone. There are people and resources to help.