5-Year-Old Defies Predictions, Prospers at Matheny


Debbie O’Connor, with two-year-old
daughter, Kayla, visits Ryan in his classroom

Shortly before their son, Ryan, reached the age of 18 months, Debbie and John O’Connor of Annandale, NJ, were given some sobering news.  “We were told,” recalls Debbie O’Connor, “that he would never walk, would never talk and that he probably wouldn’t live very long.”  Now, approaching his fifth birthday, Ryan, “is walking holding our hand; he can choose between objects; and he can point to things that start with a certain letter.  He’s socially adaptable to any situation.  He’s loving, caring; it’s just been wonderful.”

When Ryan was 1 ½ years old, he was diagnosed with a chromosomal deletion, a condition that results from loss of chromosomes.  It is a syndrome that is rarely detected prenatally.  “Ryan was born eight weeks early,” O’Connor says, “so he had a lot of physical issues at first.  He has been in early intervention since he was five months old because he hadn’t met any of his milestones; and he had a lot of kidney issues and a series of surgeries.”  When Ryan reached the age of three, therapists at the Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington  recommended Matheny for school, and, adds O’Connor, “the Clinton Township School District, after evaluating him, agreed that this (Matheny) is where she should be.”

Over the past several months, Ryan’s attention span has increased from 30 seconds to about five minutes, according to Allison Wawrin, his teacher at the Matheny School.  “He’s starting to follow directions and look at objects more closely,” she says, pointing out that he can recognize his name and make choices by pointing at objects or pictures.  One example is the weather.  Wawrin holds up a picture of clouds and another picture of the sun, and Ryan selects one, based on the weather that day.  She will also hold up pictures of four different toys, and he will choose which one he wants to play with.

“Our experience at Matheny,” says O’Connor, “has been life-changing for us and for Ryan.  At Matheny, he can experience things that other kids can, like horseback riding, going to the circus, going to baseball games.  It’s such a wonderful thing because I couldn’t do that as a parent.  I couldn’t really expose him to what he’s exposed to here.  And Matheny is so family-oriented.  I bring my six-year-old son, Jack, here, and because of the experience, he has no fear of children who are different.”

The ultimate in a family-oriented experience, says O’Connor, is Matheny’s annual fundraiser and community event, Miles for Matheny, held Sunday, April 20.  The event, says O’Connor, is, “overwhelming --  to just see all the kids and all the families rallying for these kids.  And there are people there in support of them who don’t have children at Matheny and don’t have family members at Matheny.”  Every year, the O’Connors create a webpage on the Miles for Matheny website to raise money in support of the event.  This year they raised more than $5,000.  “We sent it to family and friends.  But my family sent it to other friends and co-workers.  There were people I had never met and never spoken to who donated, and they’ve followed up to see how Ryan’s been.  They were just touched by seeing the picture of him.”