"Jacob's Ladder School is... a love story, written by Amy, to her son, Jacob." - Karla Brigiotta
The journey began in 1992 when Jacob's family was informed that my pregnancy, labeled as ‘high-risk', would require close monitoring from the fourth month through delivery. The result was total bed rest with frequent visits to the hospital to drain excess amniotic fluid caused by a large mass growing around the umbilical cord. Blood flow and, thereby, oxygenation to the baby were disturbed. His growth and development were compromised daily.
Delivery was high risk as well. After Jacob's birth, he had difficulty breathing on his own, and his oxygen saturation levels remained consistently low, further compromising his newly developing brain.
As an infant and toddler, Jacob's life was filled with frequent medical appointments, assessments, evaluations, and conflicting diagnoses. As a new mother, I remember feeling afraid, overwhelmed, and helpless. We were attending all the appointments but never left feeling as if we had learned anything to make a difference for our son. When Jacob turned two years old, we made a decision that would change our lives forever. It was time to stop focusing on assessments and probable diagnoses. It was time to take stock of exactly where we were functionally and devise a plan to move forward.
At age two, Jacob had very low muscle tone and had just mastered sitting up independently. He was not crawling or attempting to stand. For all practical purposes he was not speaking… there was some initial babbling but very limited. He had significant visual issues including double strabismus and very low visual acuity. Jacob also exhibited sensory play or self-stimulatory behaviors that are typical with an Autism diagnosis. He faced numerous health issues including a weakened immune system, allergies, numerous sensitivities, kidney complications and a serious heart defect that required surgery in 2000. Despite these issues, Jacob had a sparkle in his eye and a grin that would light up the entire room. We saw the inherent potential. Our job was to find the path that would enable him to move forward, maximizing that potential.
In Jacob's second year of life, I took the time to study and research methodology centered on the concept of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Over a three-year period, we concentrated our studies in the field of neurodevelopment, and brain rehabilitation, we were learning that the brain would change and develop based on the stimulation it receives. With each day of applying interventions based on these concepts, Jacob was responding by showing us improvements in the way his brain was receiving, processing, storing and then using information. Jacob's Ladder is now based on this very intensive approach to learning.
A story familiar to many people who have shared this journey, we were frustrated and overwhelmed by the insufficient therapies and lack of knowledge or expertise in the field of brain rehabilitation for children. This is when we established the Institute for Family Wellness, where we integrated the various approaches we had been studying. After successfully treating many children – and as more and more parents were seeking our assistance – the model that led to Jacob's Ladder was established.
I continued to work with Jacob at least four hours per day, delivering a specific intervention for each and every area of weakness, while teaching heavily to his strengths. We focused on building a strong neurological foundation from the ground up. We did not work on skills, per se, for many years. Instead we focused on the fundamental level – how his brain received, processed, stored, and then utilized all incoming information.
"I refer to Jacob as my teacher." - Amy O’Dell
Improvement was slow in the beginning. We saw some areas improve slightly within the first few months and other areas have taken years to show significant improvement. One area of fairly quick improvement was Jacob's foot hypersensitivity. He would literally cry in pain when donning his socks and shoes. I worked diligently by stimulating his feet with all different types of deep pressure and light touch, and within a few months putting on his socks and shoes became a non-issue. Conversely, we worked for over a year and a half to recognize and retain recognition of the letters A, B, C, D, and E.
Jacob continues to grow and excel. The child who could not retain five letters of the alphabet at five and six can now read and comprehend at a twelfth-grade level. The child who struggled to stand and walk loves to run, wrestle, and play football. The nonverbal child now expresses himself eloquently. The sensory play is gone. He is now preparing for his future following high-school graduation, with plans to attend college.
I refer to Jacob as my teacher. We had to work diligently in virtually every area to strengthen and increase his level of functioning. While it has been hard work and quite difficult at times, I wouldn't change one thing about this process with him. We take nothing for granted. We are thankful daily for each new thing he learns and each new way that he now excels.
What do I believe as a result of this journey? I believe with all that I am that every child can progress towards their highest potential if given the right stimulation with enough frequency and intensity. I know that there is hope for any child who is learning with differences, no matter how great or small those differences might be.
- Amy O'Dell