Parents of children diagnosed with autism face a difficult and uncertain path. There are worries about school, how a child will be treated by others and whether he or she will be able to function on their own, said Michael Ott, the parent of a 10-year-old boy with autism.
Michael and his wife, Ginger, are grateful to have found help to guide them on the path through a new program at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Since October, Jessica Fister has been the hospital’s designated “autism navigator.” Jessica works with the developmental pediatrics team in the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center, which sees many children with autism. Her job is to guide parents on matters inside and outside the hospital.
She helps the Otts and other families secure appropriate community resources and school-based services and accommodations. She will accompany parents to meetings with school officials to discuss Individualized Education Programs, known as IEPs, which spell out special education services to be provided.
Jessica met with the Otts of Massillon in February to discuss their son Justin’s IEP at his school.
“She met with us and talked about what we’d like to see in an IEP,” Michael said. “She gave us a lot of great ideas on different resources available and suggestions on what we should ask in our IEP meeting with the school.
“This whole process can be scary, and it is comforting to have someone in your corner who is happy to help.”
Jessica is more than happy to help. She gushes enthusiasm for a job she pursued after learning about it while working as a medical assistant in orthopedics at Akron Children’s.
“I’ve always loved kids,” Jessica said. “I was a preschool teacher and have a background in family and child studies. I always enjoyed kids with special needs.
“I love knowing that I can help a child develop and succeed. You just want families to know you’re there for them, to give them comfort and support.”
Jessica is brought in to assist parents by developmental-behavioral pediatricians and nurse practitioners in the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center. So far, she has seen about 90 families. The patients range in age from 18 months to 21 years, and they have a wide variety of needs.
Developmental-Behavioral pediatrician Dr. Daniel Smith wrote in a letter praising Jessica that she “has gone above and beyond, meeting with families outside of typical business hours to discuss their various needs.”
“She also takes the initiative to attend various community-based conferences that help to enhance her knowledge of the various resources available, and quickly translates that information to our patients,” Dr. Smith said.
For Justin Ott, Jessica advocated for school-based speech and occupational therapy services at Lake Center Christian School in Hartville, where Justin is a fifth grader.
“He’s never had an issue with academics,” Michael said. “It’s more on the social side of things and with impulse control.” Speech therapy is meant to help Justin with social interaction.
“We can tell how much passion Jessica has for what she does,” Michael said. “She offered to assist us in any way she could.”
Jessica says sometimes she just listens to parents who need to talk.
“I’m happy to listen if they just need to vent,” she said. “Whatever the need, I want to walk them through the journey.”
Jessica’s position was created by a generous donation by the Venner family of Wadsworth, Ohio.