When Brian and Gina Schroeder were told their 13-month-old son, Brendan, had autism, he was the youngest child in Arizona to receive the diagnosis.
The North Phoenix couple went “full force” after that, Gina said. Their son had 40 hours of in-home therapy a week.
“The simplest things took him four months to learn, like waving or clapping,” she said. “Following directions was really hard for him. At the time, he had the severe diagnosis. As a parent, you don’t know what the outcome is.
“We looked up a lot of stories, and we didn’t hear a lot of success stories.”
Until he was 4, Brendan was nonverbal, using an iPad to help him communicate. After he took up dance, things changed. He connected more with the world, Gina said. The 8 1/2-year-old boy and his family recently made their national TV debut on “Disney’s Fam Jam” in late November on the Disney Channel.
“Fam Jam” is a dance contest during which two families compete for a $10,000 cash prize. Dancing in the show were Gina; Brendan’s older sister, 13-year-old Haley; Brendan and the children’s grandfather, Ed Bonner. The family took second place, earning $2,500.
“For us, we won by getting there and getting to share the experience, for sure,” she said.
Gina said the family landed the spot after casting directors found Brendan on Instagram. They sent a message via the social media outlet and asked if anybody else in the family danced.
“I told them his sister danced,” she recalled. “The next thing we knew, we auditioned for the show. It was a really long process. We filmed the end of January. We didn’t know we made it on the show until two weeks before we were heading there.”
Gina heard “Fam Jam” wanted to feature Brendan’s autism and what dancing did for him.
“It opened up a whole new world for him,” she said. “It made all of his therapies just kind of come together. Dance brings him so much joy. It was a super awesome experience. We got my stepdad—their grandpa—to do it with them. My husband has two left feet. He wasn’t going to do any of that. They had more confidence in grandpa.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We hope there’s more of it. He does some acting and has auditioned for that. He was really upset and crying when we left. He wanted to keep doing this and wanted to be on TV.”
Haley is Brendan’s biggest fan.
“She’s everything to him,” Gina said. “If the therapist couldn’t do something, they’d ask her.”
Becoming a dancer
Amber Wittmers, owner of Adaptive Force Performing Arts in Scottsdale, said Brendan loved visiting the dance studio a few times a week when Haley attended her classes.
“Brendan wanted to dance with his sister every time she danced here,” Wittmers said. “At roughly 3 1/2 years old, Brendan joined his first dance class. In a very short period of time, his family began to notice changes. He went from being completely nonverbal to talking and engaging with others around him. Dance brought him so much joy and happiness. Brendan is now dancing 14 hours a week at 8 1/2 years old.”
Brendan now dances 15 hours a week. He also does gymnastic and acts.
“It’s been uphill since he started dancing,” she said. “He goes to a typical school. He’s living in a pretty typical world. Everyone has their own perspective about autism. He’s very outgoing and social.
“He doesn’t know his boundaries. But a lot of kids on the spectrum are shy. He’s a social butterfly. He’s old enough where we’ve tried to each him about autism. I want him to understand so his story can be shred to help so many other people.”
Gina said she receives messages from all over the world via Brendan’s Instagram page. They ask questions like signs and therapy. One mother said she hopes her child could do that one day.
“As a parent, I didn’t have resources like that,” Gina said. “I just wanted to hear more success stories. You don’t hear as many as you want to.
“But he’s verbal now. He leads a pretty typical life. He’s a diehard sports lover. He loves to watch football. He knows the stats. He does a football pool with the family. He has more energy than you can imagine."