The Johnsons

Marissa Johnson is a little girl who loves to dance. But a mere year ago, she was unable to communicate or show much emotion at all.

Read their story

Four year old Marissa Johnson is a happy little girl; she runs around her preschool classroom, giving out hugs, laughing, and dancing with joy. What would seem like typical four-year-old behavior to most, is extraordinary for this little girl. Only one year ago, Marissa kept her thoughts and feelings to herself, unable to communicate with those around her. She would spend long hours sitting alone in the corner of her room, and would often have tantrums when confronted with overstimulating situations, such as bright lights, loud noises, and cluttered clothing stores.

Marissa was diagnosed with autism before the age of two. After receiving the frightening diagnosis, her parents Bill and Lynn knew they had to be proactive. They began working with therapists and enrolling Marissa in early childhood programs. The day after Marissa's third birthday, the Johnsons enrolled Marissa in Kanawha County's Head Start program, knowing they would need extra help to make sure their daughter had a chance to grow and play as other children do.

Rather than placing Marissa in a special needs class, Head Start's preschool program allows Marissa to go to school and socialize with all types of children. Government-funded disability provides only limited resources, and for a child suffering from autism, it's often not enough. Head Start gives Marissa the additional speech and occupational therapy she needs, which has dramatically helped her motor skills and tactile development. Head Start also coordinates with other social programs that could help the Johnsons, ensuring Marissa and her parents are receiving the most complete and updated care they need.

And the results have been remarkable. Marissa has truly blossomed. For a child who once rarely smiled, her laughter and animated dance moves fill the room; she loves to go shopping and pick out her clothes; and most importantly, she is able to communicate with those around her using words, gestures, and sign language.

"Head Start integrates the entire family as part of the child's development," Bill explains.

And without it, he says, he's not sure Marissa would have made this dramatic progress in such little time. Bill and Lynn attend monthly meetings and classes as part of the Head Start program, and Bill serves as president of the Policy Council. Because she requires extra care, Lynn stays home to care for Marissa and her older brother, Benjamin, while Bill works as a catering chef at a local hotel. Caring for an autistic child can be costly for anyone, especially a single-income family, and the Johnsons "were unaware of everything that was available --" as many parents are, Bill says. Head Start connected the Johnsons with essential financial and medical resources, so that Marissa wouldn't fall behind.

Spending time with Bill and Lynn, one can see their love for their daughter is strong, and their commitment to Marissa's success if palpable. Through Bill and Lynn's diligent hard work, and the resources provided by Head Start, the Johnsons can now enjoy simple family activities most take for granted. They've been to amusement parks and on road trips. And they love to witness Marissa experience the world around her, with joy that she can now express.

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