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Making a Difference: Mary Hughes

Unlocking the Mystery

Parker is a bundle of energy, full of fun, full of interests, and eager to share. He can rattle off the names of a dozen different dinosaurs and knows everything there is to know about all the trains and vehicles featured on Thomas & Friends.

“There is no better thing in the world for him than the world he is watching in those shows on KET,” said Parker’s mom, Mary Hughes of Floyd County, a friendly, self-described mountain girl devoted to family.

Parker reads fluently and with confidence about his favorite subjects. But it wasn’t always this way.

At one time, the 8-year-old never responded to his name or made eye contact. He stopped achieving developmental milestones such as first sounds or talking.

Her son, Mary says, just disappeared.

“Parker was born in 2006 and he was born healthy,” she said, “but at about the age of one year he no longer communicated. He became silent, he didn’t make eye contact, and he didn’t turn his head when I said his name. I was very scared.”

Doctors thought perhaps Parker was deaf. He underwent tests, and being a young, inexperienced mother, Mary even wondered if she’d done something wrong. Finally, his first diagnosis came back: autism.

“So I guarded him, like a hen on an egg,” she recalled. “I did not want anybody disturbing him, I didn’t want anybody in his face. But I woke up one day and just realized: you are disabling your child by being so protective, and he’s missing out on fun things because of a condition. Why are you doing that?”

From that time on, Mary decided to give her little boy plenty of experiences and provide him as rich a life as possible. She pointed out the names of everything in his room, she took him to church. She prayed.

Eventually she found a way to reach Parker.

“He watched KET all the time,” she remembered, “and before he could talk, he could hum the Barney song. At first I didn’t understand what it was—I was just happy to hear some sound—but as he got better and better at making sounds, I said, ‘Oh my goodness! He’s singing to me!’ I never will forget that.”

From that basis, Parker’s vocal development began to take off. He began making consonant sounds, and Mary enrolled him in Head Start, where he received speech and occupational therapy.

More and more, Parker’s intense connection to his favorite programs on KET began to give his mother a way to communicate with him.

“KET unlocked my child,” she declared. She is quick to add that Parker was not “cured” of autism, but notes that his unique needs responded well to the stimulation he received with KET’s educational programs. And a new evaluation has revealed that his correct diagnosis is not autism, but rather high-functioning ADHD, she said.

“With my child, he couldn’t relate to anything around him, there was no ground to communicate with him at all, no tools,” she said. “But then suddenly, we had a place. We had Thomas.”

Parker quickly moved from playing trains (which he still loves) into full-on dinosaur obsession, thanks to Dinosaur Train. Mary, remembering Mr. Rogers from her own childhood, is pleased how much he loves Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Other favorites include SuperWHY and Peg + Cat.

His interests also include subjects like biology and history.

“The programs he watches on KET gave me a way to get in there and learn how he functions and enabled me to find out what I can do to make his development better,” she said.

“It’s the best thing I ever did.”

KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.