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Peterborough family copes with autism on the slopes

The Hopkins family of Peterborough ski at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012

(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)

The Hopkins family of Peterborough ski at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride on Friday, Dec. 28, 2012 (Staff photo by Tim Goodwin) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

With some fresh snow blanketing the trails of Crotched Mountain, there was little question where the Hopkins would be.

Skiing is what the family that has lived in Peterborough for the last eight years loves to do together in the cold winter months. Janet, who grew up in Keene and whose grandfather Erling Heistad is in the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame in Michigan , has always enjoyed hitting the slopes. Her husband, Luke, who is from Kansas, picked it up after meeting Janet.

And the love of the sport has been passed on to their two children, Andrew and Jennifer. Andrew is a junior at ConVal and competes for the alpine team and Jennifer, a first grader at Peterborough Elementary School, is a member of the Crotched Mountain race team.

“[Andrew] really enjoys skiing,” said Luke. “We all really enjoy it.”

In 1995, the two were comfortable in their jobs at IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and expecting their first child. But that is also when their journey in life took a new path.

At around 18 months, they noticed something different about Andrew. He wasn’t talking or doing some of the typical things for a child his age, so Janet decided to apply the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers to Andrew and found some key matches. At age 22 months, Andrew was officially diagnosed.

Up to that point, neither Janet or Luke had every really been around a child with autism. But they were suddenly thrust into a life that no one can really ever plan for.

By the age of two, Andrew was having 40 hours a week of therapy. Then in 1998, Luke and Janet began Silver Lining Multimedia, an educational company that produces software to help special needs individuals learn language and communicate with photos.

They had left their jobs at IBM and were now focused on building a business to help both special needs parents and children. It immediately took off.

“It was probably the furthest thing from our minds,” said Janet. “It really came out of working at home with Andrew.”

They wanted to provide guidance to other parents of autistic children and this was the best way they knew how.

“It’s important to get things under control in the beginning,” said Luke.

Andrew, who is now 17 years old and in the life skills program at ConVal, was their guinea pig. Before he could talk he could read, which is attributed to his hyperlexia, which is an above normal ability to read and below normal ability to understand spoken language. So Janet and Luke would always write things down in order to provide Andrew with information. And that is the basis of their business.

“At the time, there weren’t a lot of programs for children with special needs,” said Janet. “Now most of the companies in special needs were started by a therapist or a parent.”

Silverlining Multimedia covers it all when it comes to learning for a special needs child. There are interactive computer games, photo software and programs that teach social and fine motor skills.

“He’s very good on a computer,” said Janet. “He’s better than a search engine.”

And while Andrew is limited in certain ways, in other respects he is well above the curve. Since he is such a visual learner, Andrew can memorize a photo after looking at it just once. You can also give him a date and a year and he will tell you what day of the week it fell on and even what he did that day.

“He’s like a walking calendar,” Janet said of Andrew. “He has a photographic memory. His memory is incredible.”

When Andrew was really young, Janet used to take him to their local mountain in New York. She would tether Andrew to her body, giving him the freedom to ski, but retaining the ability to control his movements. Since Andrew could not really take verbal instructions, Janet had to teach him in a more hands-on way. The tethering lasted until Andrew was about 10 years old and then he moved on to the adaptive ski program at Mount Sunapee.

“He was not talking at that point, so you couldn’t give him instructions,” said Janet. “But he really loved it.”

He participated in the program for a few years, but since his freshman year at ConVal he has been a part of the alpine ski team. Andrew doesn’t really enjoy the more team-oriented sports like soccer that have a lot of rules. Instead he prefers to ski during the winter — the family has a season’s pass to Crotched Mountain — and swim year round.

On Thursday, Andrew competed for ConVal at Crotched Mountain in the team’s second meet and finished 31st overall. While he may not be able to whip down the mountain like other skiers his age, the biggest thing is how much he enjoys it. He feels part of the team and is that why he never misses a practice.

“He’ll be sick as a dog and he’ll go to practice,” said Janet.

Luke goes to the twice weekly practices and the Thursday meets with Andrew, but just to keep him on track. “He needs someone with him,” said Luke. “Just to make sure he doesn’t ski off by himself.”

Like most parents with a child who has autism, things have been different for Janet and Luke since Andrew was born, but it has also led to a path in life now dedicated to helping others.

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