Laurie Milledge and her son, Alex, 20, stand together at her This and That gift shop in Rumford. Alex completed his education at Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in Auburn in October 2023 and received his diploma from Regional School Unit 10 based in Rumford. Alex helps out at the shop by making all-natural scrubs, lavender soap, crystal candles, bath salts, garden stakes and charms. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

Laurie and Michael Milledge of Rumford had a rough road finding the best education for their son Alex, who is autistic and limited in his speech and developmental abilities. Now 20 years old, Alex completed his education at Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in October 2023 and received his diploma from Regional School Unit 10 based in Rumford.

Initially, Alex’s education had its start in general education in local schools, but that did not work out well for him. It wasn’t until he went to Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in Auburn in the fifth grade that he and his parents knew he was in the right place. There, on the first day that he came home from school, he said in his limited speech, “I (am) just like everybody else,” his mother Laurie said.

Currently, Laurie is going to college to be Alex’s shared living provider and direct support person. She also manages her This and That gift shop in Rumford, where Alex helps out by making all-natural scrubs, lavender soap, crystal candles, bath salts, garden stakes and charms.

How and why did your This and That gift shop in Rumford come to be? What kinds of jobs does your son Alex have in the shop? It was just supposed to be a pop-up shop for a couple of months during COVID. I decorated the windows at Trendsetters (hair salon in Rumford) and at the GRCC (Greater Rumford Community Center) for Mindy and Gary. I used my own creations to do this . . . fairy gardens, arrangements and wreaths usually. And people were asking to buy what was in the windows. I would have to ask Gary to open the doors for me to get items for people to buy. One day he said “Come with me” and we went over to the spot where Barks and Bubbles (in Rumford) was . . . went inside and he said, ”What do you think?” I was blown away excited, but the thought had really never crossed my mind to open a business (there).

I spoke to my friend Amy and we decided to do it together for the holidays — because of COVID there was no craft fairs. We took a couple months and made the space into a retail area and asked a few crafters to join us for variety and opened on Oct. 31st, 2020, with the intention of closing on January 1st.

(Regarding Alex’s jobs at the shop), during COVID Alex’s school was only closed for a couple weeks. They figured out a way to give the kids at MMCC (Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in Auburn) the consistency they need by splitting the kids into pods. They all tested every morning and they masked. Alex’s goals were modified from working in the community to him having his own little business in school. They taught him to make sugar scrubs. He had an order form and he would go to the other pods in school and ask them to buy his sugar scrub. Alex was made to ask what flavors they wanted, take the order, go back to his pod, make the scrubs, clean his area and deliver his products. He then put his money in his account and learned how to budget it for supplies.

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He ordered his supplies from Hannaford On the Go and had a budget. If he had extra money some days he would order from the schools snack cart. The whole thing was brilliant, I thought. We took his school business and ran with it. He added candles, bath salts, lavender soaps and garden wands to his already popular sugar scrub. His products are all natural and smell like heaven. His candles have crystals in them and a beautiful reusable tin for $12.50. All his products are priced reasonably from $5 to $12.50.

He loves numbers and is so good at making change and running the cash register. He does struggle with communication, so his time at the front of the shop is limited. He is great at inventory and can open the shop, turning on the lights and setting up the register and setting up the stuff outside weather permitting.

You’re currently going to college and studying to be a direct support person for Alex, who is 20 years old. Why are you doing this? Alex’s case manager Will LaRose applied for a grant through the state of Maine and Alex was awarded this last year. This is a grant that he will have for the rest of his life. It is called Shared Living, and basically I as his parent have taken this responsibility on, but it could be anyone willing to take the responsibility.

As his shared living person, I have had to do schooling to become a DSP (direct support person), (including taking) CPR and CRMA courses. My job is to prepare him for a life without his mom and dad, to get him out in the community and meet people, and have interests. He is given jobs at home and at our store. He has a trainer at the GRCC gym, Dawson Walton, who he has become friends with, and another friend, Sherri Hanson, that has worked and been with Alex and our family for years.

This is my job, to give him opportunities and choices for a full life with or without his parents. This grant pays me and his helper friends to give him these opportunities.

Laurie and Michael Milledge of Rumford have guided their 20-year-old autistic son, Alex, throughout his life. Alex completed his education at Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in Auburn in October 2023 and received his diploma from Regional School Unit 10 based in Rumford. Submitted photo

When Alex was in elementary school and a couple of years following, you, your husband and Alex endured difficult times with him as a student in public schools. Describe some of what he went through and what finally worked for him and your family. For Alex, public schooling was a constant nightmare. He started school and therapies at 18 months old. He started at Child Development Services immediately after being diagnosed with autism. We were so blessed to get services for him immediately. Speech, occupational therapy and preschool, with extended-year services for consistency.

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The year he started kindergarten was horrific. My beautiful little blond boy became aggressive and very angry. Doctors would tell us this is common for kids that are nonverbal. I did research on how to help him. They thought it was a gut issue so we spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a naturopathic doctor (they don’t take insurance) and we did testing on allergies and gut bacteria and (food) intolerance.

We then put him on a special diet, very expensive gluten-free, casein-free diets that are common now but not in 2005. We did all this to find out that . . . the reason for his behavior was he was different than the other kids in his class, and instead of working with him and helping him belong, it was easier to segregate him. . . .

So he was segregated from the other kids. We hired lawyers and had him moved to another district. Alex thrived until his teacher left. . . . Alex’s behaviors started all over again. . . . Don’t get me wrong, there were good people involved during these years. We had some wonderful ed techs and an amazing speech therapist who always went above and beyond (Cathy Hazelton).

Eventually, his teacher asked to have him sent to Spring Harbor (a hospital and school in Westbrook) because of his behavior. It was never told to us that we had any options. The school and his behavioral pediatrician said he had to go. He went away from us for 60 days. Hate is a strong word, but I hate them for doing this to my family. For 60 days he was a lab rat. He went to school at the hospital, and they trained Alex to behave.

The district went to the hospital when his 60 days were almost over to learn to follow through with what he learned. I traveled to Portland every day for 60 days and Mike and I both spent Saturdays and Sundays with him till they threw us out. He was released the day before Mother’s Day, the best gift I ever got.

He went back to school and for a couple weeks he did well, but it was work to follow through with the program. . . . Finally, the district said they were unable to teach him and wanted him to go to the Margaret Murphy Center for Children. This was another devastation. Now our son will be an hour away from us. He will have to travel those roads every day. But again, there wasn’t a choice. He had to go to school, he was only in the fifth grade. We decided there wasn’t a choice.

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He started school (at the MMCC) on Minot Avenue (in Auburn). We met with the school many times before he started and just loved everything we heard and saw. Alex’s first day of school at MMCC he came home and we said “Hey buddy, how was your day?” He is pretty much nonverbal, but answered with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face: “Just like everybody else. . . .”

Margaret Murphy gave our family the quality of life we never had. Support and communication we never had. We still hated him being on that road twice a day, but for most of his time there he had a wonderful driver and friend until he got sick and the school hired me to transport him. I drove him for three years and we both had enough of the drive. Him two times a day and me four. Alex graduated on October 6, 2023, with his diploma from RSU 10 and a certificate of completion from Margaret Murphy! We are so very proud of him!

Alex Milledge stands with his special friend Brynn on graduation day October 2023. He completed his education at Margaret Murphy Centers for Children in Auburn and graduated from RSU 10 based in Rumford. Submitted photo

What are some of Alex’s ‘special abilities’? Alex is nonverbal. This doesn’t mean he can’t talk, it means he has a hard time communicating. He learned his voice through PECs (picture exchange communication) — pictures with words. Alex has hyperlexia as well, which is the ability to read at a very young age. He didn’t have to be taught to read but being nonverbal you miss these things. As a tiny baby, he had an obsession with DVDs and as a baby, you would think he would look at the pretty picture on the cover but never; he always turned it over with all the writing on the back.

The credits at the end of a movie were always more exciting than the movie (for him). We never understood how this (was) until he was older and a speech therapist told us about hyperlexia. For as much as he loved words, numbers are his thing. Math, he would do math all day long. At school, they gave him options for his earned time and instead of playing or something fun he would choose math. When COVID hit and everyone had to shelter in place, his school (MMCC) had Zoom classes for a couple weeks while they figured a safe plan to get them back for the consistency they needed.

During this time, I got to witness what really happened between teachers and students. I was amazed. The things that you never saw or heard about in an IEP (individualized educational plan) or a home/school log. One of Alex’s favorite teachers was Val. She did math group and was also his school case manager. She said to me one day during Zoom class that Alex could pick any number you gave him on a grid of paper without thinking or counting. Of course, I had to try this and was blown away. He nailed it every time.

(Alex) being nonverbal, you don’t know these things until they present themselves. Alex has recently found a love for the GRCC Fitness Center and is working with a trainer, Dawson Walton. He enjoys boxing with Dawson. He learns and Dawson gives it a number sequence. Dawson will say “1,2,1,1, side, protect” and Alex has the ability to remember everything Dawson says with ease. Alex loves the way he trains.

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Alex strives for perfection when following directions. We recently tried chair yoga at Hope Association with Sandy Gordon and I watched Alex want to be perfect on his first day. His concentration was something to see. So very proud of him!

With all of his awesomeness, these abilities also have a downside. Some days he can’t tolerate noises, people, smells, or lights. Some days the smallest things will overstimulate him and you don’t know why. He doesn’t know why, because yesterday the same things didn’t bother him. You never know. But the one thing that always prevails is love and patience. Calm, understanding behavior is what he responds to.

He is an empath. He feels more than regular people and he always knows if people like him or if they are the ones that treat him as different or less. He just knows and will treat them accordingly. Usually, he wants nothing to do with them. He has come so far and is a wonderful human. Dad and I are so very proud of him!

Do you have some recommendations or ideas for other parents and caregivers of autistic children and young adults? All humans with disabilities are different, just like typical humans. We are all the same but different. We all have good days and bad days and we all handle those days differently. The one thing that is the same for everyone is we just want to be treated with dignity and respect, love and compassion. When it comes to autism, over the years I have noticed it truly is a spectrum disorder. What works for one doesn’t always work for another.

Listen to them, I mean really listen to them. When they ask you not to make a noise there is a reason. That noise may hurt them. Just because it doesn’t bother you — their hearing may be oversensitive and it literally hurts them. Listen to them. Even if they are nonverbal, they will tell you.

(We’ve had) 20 years of mostly trauma to our family in one form or another, but never once have we not looked at our son as the gift that he is. We have always wanted the best for him and the choices have not always been the right ones, but the goal was always for him to be happy and have the best this life has to offer him. At 20 years old he is an intelligent, kind, loving young man, and honestly what more can you ask for?

For all parents and grandparents going through life with autism, it’s not easy being warriors, but you owe them the best life, love and patience you can. Try everything till you find what works . . . never give up . . . they are a gift from God.


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