Sam Gladstone is up to something. Behind a sneaky raised eyebrow and Mona Lisa grin, gears are turning. The 5-year-old is sizing up the world, formulating his master plan.
For now, that plan consists mainly of driving his Little Tikes coupe around the driveway and playing with his father’s iPhone.
“Sam is really a puzzle,” said his mother, Lucy Gladstone. “Every parent with a special needs child thinks their kid is different, but Sam even stumped the professionals.”
Behind the wheel of his plastic sports car, Sam barrels down an imaginary highway, drag racing with his 3-year-old sister, Charlotte Gladstone.
The children live with their mother and father, Troy Gladstone, in O’Fallon.
Sam is nonverbal, rarely making a sound. He expresses himself through nonstop movement; running, crawling, waving his arms. But put an iPhone in his hands and suddenly all that unbridled energy is focused on the digital world at his fingertips. Sam knows how to use all the phone’s functions, even changing system settings.
Charlotte attends preschool at the United Services for Children center in Dardenne Prairie. Sam recently graduated from United Services preschool and now attends kindergarten in the Fort Zumwalt School District.
The fact that Sam rides a school bus by himself is a testament to how far he has come since beginning preschool two years ago, Lucy said.
“United Services allowed Sam to integrate into a classroom with typically developing children,” she said. “He learned a lot from peer modeling, working with other kids.”
Sam has a rare chromosome deletion. Troy said a geneticist told him Sam was one of only 12 people in medical history with a similar diagnosis.
The Gladstones knew something was wrong when Sam was 6 months old. He was not hitting expected milestones. He would not smile. His eyes would not track movement. He was slow in learning to sit, crawl or walk.
Lucy said Sam’s eventual diagnosis left her and Troy “devastated.” But they refused to believe their son’s path was predetermined.
“Sam is going to write his own book,” Lucy said.
When the Gladstones brought Sam to United Services, the staff saw a child instead of a diagnosis, they said.
“The staff here really dug in their heels and tried to figure out what was best for Sam,” Troy said. “Nobody ever gave up on him.”
Lucy said Sam’s speech therapist “thought out of the box” to figure out how to capture Sam’s attention and keep him focused.
“She would blow my mind,” Lucy said. “She would get Sam to show her what he wanted.”
Because of his sensory issues, Sam would not touch a crayon, Lucy said. But through occupational therapy at United Services, Sam not only learned to use crayons and paintbrushes, but to create expressive artwork. One painting was so good that it was published in a calendar.
“It was the most beautiful picture we had ever seen,” Lucy said.
Kate Becker, a United Services early childhood special education teacher, spent two years working with Sam at the Dardenne Prairie center. Becker transferred this fall to United Services’ St. Peters center, but she still keeps a framed photograph of her and Sam prominently displayed in her classroom.
“I love me some Sam,” Becker said, looking at the photo. “He meant a lot to me. He made me a better teacher.”
Becker said she looks at the photo when she needs cheering up. “It reminds me that I am making a difference, that all the hard work will pay off.”
When she first met Sam, he was unsteady on his feet and easily agitated, Becker said.
“It seemed like he had an itch in his brain that he just couldn’t scratch,” she said.
Becker worked to improve Sam’s walking and standing, to help him learn to tolerate different experiences and social interaction. By the time Sam graduated, his therapists and teachers had seen a lot of progress, she said. He was playing with toys, socializing with peers and learning to feed himself.
“The day he took a lick of a popsicle, we all cried,” Becker said. “Then one day he started clapping, and we all cried again. It showed that he understood social cues. It was an expression of happiness.”
Becker said Sam’s parents were “the most supportive, positive people” she had ever worked with, willing to do whatever was necessary to help their son.
When it came time to enroll Charlotte in preschool, the Gladstones did not hesitate to bring her to United Services, despite the fact that she was a typically developing child.
“It just seemed natural that Charlotte would come here,” Lucy said. “They have kids of all abilities here. We wanted her to have exposure to kids with special needs.”
Just as they had been with Sam, the teachers at United Services were encouraging and nurturing with Charlotte.
“She just flourished and grew here,” Lucy said. “I think so much of this place, I don’t know how to put it into words. Everyone has been so amazing with Sam and Charlotte.”
While Charlotte continues preschool at United Services, Sam is developing socially in kindergarten.
He still gives people his trademark sneaky stare and slyly raised eyebrow. But now that intense face breaks into a smirk, then a giggle, and finally a delighted laugh.