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AF family navigates autism together

The Christi family poses for a photo at Joint Base Andrews, Md., April 27, 2017. Michael Christi, far right, son of Jeff Christi and Maj. Rebecca Christi, 799th Medical Group pediatrician, has autism spectrum disorder. The Air Force provides Michael with health and educational services, including Exceptional Family Member Program and Extended Care Health Options, which in turn provide therapies such as applied behavior analogy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. April is also Autism Awareness Month, which is meant to increase understanding and acceptance of autism. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valentina Lopez)

Maj. Rebecca Christi, a 779th Medical Group pediatrician; her husband, Jeff Christi; and their children pose for a photo at Joint Base Andrews, Md., April 27, 2017. The Air Force provides their son Michael, who has autism spectrum disorder, with health and educational services, through the Exceptional Family Member Program and Extended Care Health Options, which provide therapies such as applied behavior analogy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Valentina Lopez)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Michael Christi is a three year old who loves animals, enjoys playing outside and adores school. He is like any other child who learns new subjects and socializes, but he performs differently due to having autism spectrum disorder, a developmental condition that is characterized by difficulty with social communication and a display of repetitive behavior.

Michael lives at Joint Base Andrews with his mother, Maj. Rebecca Christi; father, Jeff Christi; and three siblings. Rebecca and Jeff first noticed Michael’s autistic symptoms when he was a year old.

“He wasn’t very responsive to his name and it was difficult to get him to engage in any type of play with us,” said Rebecca, a 779th Medical Group pediatrician. “Around 18 months, we decided to start the process with his pediatrician to see a developmental specialist.”

Michael went through multiple evaluations that tested his hearing, sight and motor skills at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. By the time he was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with ASD.

“Fear and denial hit me when Michael was diagnosed,” said Jeff, a stay at home father. “I was worried about the challenges we might face. I wasn’t familiar with autism and was scared of not knowing how to care for an autistic child.”

The military has helped care for Michael by providing health and educational services.

“The Air Force health care system really leads the way with providing services for special needs children and it’s amazing what they will cover financially,” Rebecca said. “It’s such a blessing to have the Air Force provide services that value ASD treatments for autistic children.”

Some of the services offered to the Christi family include the Exceptional Family Member Program and the Extended Care Health Options, which provide therapies such as applied behavior analysis, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

Although the services provided by the Air Force are plentiful, autistic children and their parents still face many challenges every day.

“Michael doesn’t see his autism as a challenge, but more of a way he lives life,” Rebecca said. “Caring for an autistic child has taught me to balance schedules since Michael has many therapies. I’m a mother of three other small children and I’m an active duty military member.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 68 children in the U.S. have autism, indicating that the Christi family is not alone in facing this challenge.

“It’s important the Air Force offers these services,” Rebecca said. “It’s becoming more common with time and parents need to treat autistic children early to give them a functional, independent and happy life.”

According to Jeff and Rebecca, the therapies offered by the Air Force have improved Michael’s overall communication. This makes it possible for him to expand his ability to form relationships and function in day-to-day life.

“It can be tough to connect with Michael without speech,” said Jeff. “But we still love him and we’re there for him. I give him lots of hugs to let him know our family’s affection.”

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