DFWChild / Articles / MomLife / Moms We Love / Jill Briesch

Jill Briesch

Jill Briesch was shocked when she finally heard the words, “We believe your son has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” She’d known for months something was amiss. At 15 months old, it was as if Alexander, now 5 1/2, was 'frozen in time.” He stopped meeting milestones and had trouble feeding. Jill and her husband Chris, a tax director at HP Inc., went through three pediatricians, desperately searching for answers.
 
“I remember going into our master closet one night and falling to my knees, tears pouring down my face, begging for someone to help,” says Briesch, a 36-year-old certified public accountant. “I remember feeling like, ‘Gosh, I can do someone’s taxes in my sleep but don’t have the faintest idea how to help my child.’”
 
Refusing to simply “wait and see” as the pediatricians advised, the couple took matters into their own hands. “I don’t think anyone scours Google like the parent of a child with a developmental disorder,” she quips.
 
The family went around their pediatrician when Alexander was 20 months old and went to the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, where the toddler began a regimen of intensive speech therapy, plus feeding, occupational and physical therapies. No diagnosis meant minimal help from the family’s insurance provider and an “astronomical level of expenses.”
 
While Chris climbed the corporate ladder, more motivated than ever by the family’s accumulating expenses, Briesch became pregnant with baby number two, William, and life turned into a balancing act of prenatal appointments and hours upon hours of therapy.
 
Alexander finally made it to the top of a lengthy waiting list to see a developmental pediatrician at 2 1/2. The worried parents got a concrete diagnosis, ASD, along with the stark realization that — as the younger sibling to a child with autism — 3-month-old William was at a much greater risk of being diagnosed as well.
 
“That night, we swore up and down that we weren’t going to wait and see,” says the Highland Village mom. “We made a vow that we weren’t going to let what happened to Alexander happen again. We weren’t going to lose all that time.”
 
Unwavering in their commitment, the parents had William greenlighted for an eye-gaze tracking study at the University of Texas at Dallas at just 6 months old. Results were indicative of a higher probability of autism, so they hit the ground running.
 
“I called every early childhood specialist, center and agency in the city,” she says. “Who can help us with a 6-month-old infant?” Met with resounding silence, the parents educated themselves on pivotal response training, an intervention model derived from applied behavior analysis. They hired grad students to work with the infant out of their home.
 
When William was just over 1, they took him to the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Children’s Health, and he became the youngest child ever to be diagnosed with ASD in Dallas-Fort Worth.
 
As expected, the second time wasn’t any easier than the first.
 
“But we knew a lot more; we were ahead of the game,” she says. “We knew what kind of struggles another child of ours was going to face. That’s an emotional burden that I didn’t carry the first time, and I didn’t spend six months floundering.”
 
Today, Briesch believes undoubtedly that their proactive response to crisis paid off. Alexander, who’s in therapy close to 40 hours a week, is fully conversational, independent in self-care, potty trained and positively obsessed with Star Wars. And in early June, William had his autism diagnosis reversed. To be sure, it’s not a case of a mistaken diagnosis. His scores at 12 and 24 months clearly showed autism, but at 40 months, his numbers are below the cutoff for autism spectrum disorder. He’s excitedly preparing to start a typical pre-K program. As for Briesch, she calls herself “better in every way.” 
 
“I wouldn’t recognize the woman I was five years ago if I met her on the street,” she reveals. “These boys have taught me to think about how you handle what comes your way in life. You may not get what you thought, but you can take it and make something beautiful out of it.”
 
To be sure, she practices what she preaches. She’s on the board of Easter Seals North Texas, an ambassador for Autism BrainNet (she and Chris have committed to donate their brains for autism research) and administrator for an autism board for parents seeking help navigating the tricky terrain of insurance. In her precious free time, she enjoys writing essays about her experiences for resources such as Autism Speaks and leading parent-to-parent talks at local therapy centers — all this in addition to working part time and managing her boys’ packed daily schedules.
 
But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Briesch found purpose in adversity.
 
“This is definitely not an area that I expected to become an expert in,” she says. “But taking my knowledge and using it to help other parents gives me a lot of joy every day.”
 
Prone to overextend herself, there are a few non-negotiables she makes priority in order to maintain her sanity. She strives to work out whenever she can, even if it’s “really early in the morning in the kitchen with kettlebells.” She’s also remained close with the same group of girlfriends she’s had since eighth grade, and monthly date nights are a must. The only rule: no autism talk. “It’s just about enjoying each other; that’s critical.”
 
While the kids are at their grandparent’s, who live in Dallas-Fort Worth, the couple heads to dinner and a movie or Starbucks to pour over travel guides — a favorite pastime. Since catching the bug in high school on a trip to London and Nairobi, Briesch “lives to travel.” She’s been to Greece, Austria, Germany and Italy, which she loves to visit each year. Montepulciano, a town in Southern Tuscany that the family’s visited several times, is a favorite. They’ve forged relationships with locals, even learned a little Italian.
 
Other parents are often shocked to hear of the family’s international travels. Long flights, noisy airport terminals and unfamiliar surroundings aren’t exactly ideal for kids with autism, but Briesch believes it’s just one more example of what can be possible.
 
“Yes, [an autism diagnosis] is a game changer,” she says. “But boy, are you in to see some miracles. Great things are possible with hard work.”