'Likely Friendships' captures sweet bonds children with autism form with pals

Special photography project shows that all sorts of children can be helped to socialize and communicate more successfully.
Nigel Odom, 3, who has autism, once struggled to play and socialize with his sister, Sydney.
Nigel Odom, 3, who has autism, once struggled to play and socialize with his sister, Sydney. Since attending a preschool program at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, he has become so social he's known as the "mayor of preschool."Courtesy of Ashley Berrie Photography / Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

When Nigel Odom was about a year old, he avoided eye contact and shied away other children so he could play alone. If he approached other kids, he didn’t quite understand how to play with them. That’s because Nigel has autism, and socializing can feel challenging for him.

“He would definitely play on his own and be in his own world,” his mom, Jenny Odom of Atlanta, told TODAY Parents.

Nigel, now 3, was diagnosed at a young age, which allowed him to start early intervention programs. But it was the Preschool Program at the Marcus Autism Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta that helped Nigel transform from a shy, uncomfortable child to “the mayor of preschool.” His mother never imagined he would be so engaged.

“He and his sister have been wrestling together, which is huge,” she said. “In the past few weeks, he started taking me by the hand and saying, ‘Come here, Mommy, I want to show you this. I want to play with you.’”

Odom also loves that her son is so empathetic and outgoing that she no longer needs to worry about him bonding with others. Many parents of children with autism worry that their children will be socially isolated, but the programs at Marcus help them understand how to make friends.

“He is learning a lot about coping skills,” Odom said. “The goal is to prepare him for kindergarten but it obviously prepares him for life.”

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The "Likely Friendships" project shows the close bonds people with autism form when they find their tribe.

Nigel and others who attend Marcus Autism Center programs participated in a photography project called "Likely Friendships" showing the relationships they have fostered since their interventions. The images prove that neurodiverse people develop close friendships just like their peers.

“We have seen such growth,” Odom said. “He’s just creative and goofy and musically inclined and so much fun.”

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Chloe James, 5, also has changed since attending the Marcus Autism Center. Chloe was nonverbal, so she had extreme difficulties communicating. That made her angry and frustrated.

“She tended to be aggressive,” Chloe's mom, Karen James, 46, of McDonough, Georgia, told TODAY Parents. “She wasn’t able to tell us when she was hungry or tired or request anything.”

While Chloe now says a handful of words, such as “mom” and “dad,” she's also learned other ways to communicate so much better than before. She sometimes uses cards with pictures on them to ask for food or a drink, for example, or she points to what she wants. James attributes part of Chloe’s improved disposition to her experience with the Marcus Autism Center's therapy dog, Flip.

“When the therapists wanted her to do (something) … Flip was really an encouragement," James explained.

Chloe has managed to shed most of her anger, but one thing has remained constant: Her love of dogs. When James can’t find her at home, Chloe’s lying beside the family dog’s bed. Her family feels grateful for the evolution she's shown.

“She has learned to socialize,” she said. “Marcus has really opened up another avenue for her to communicate.”

To find early intervention programs for autism near you, follow the links provided here by the National Institutes of Health.