Changing Dallin Noble’s world

Megan Beatty Gaeta (l) and Sara Howe Noble (r) flank Dallin Noble.

Sara Howe Noble (’89) woke up to a nightmare a dozen years ago, one that parents facing similar challenges understand all too well. Her 5-year-old son Dallin (pronounced DAY-lin) had been diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that impairs communication and behavioral skills.

“It was devastating and rocked my world and just shook us all to the core,” Sara says. “This was the first time anyone on either side of the family had to deal with anything like this. We all went through the initial stages of shock, disbelief, anger and grief.”

And then Sara dug in. This wife and mother did everything she could for her eldest son, while also caring for two younger children. “I was always right there with (his teachers) on the frontlines. Whatever they needed to teach Dallin, I would provide for them. I was also honest and would tell them not to sugar coat things for me.”

“He couldn’t communicate with anyone,” Sara says. “I was really the only person in the world he could connect to. I was the only one who understood that ‘buhbuoe’ meant ‘I want more juice.'”

Dallin was also challenged by social rules. What a typical child learns from social interaction, such as making friends, he had to be taught. “Or how to walk through the school’s hall and not run or flap your arms when you’re excited,” Sara says. While he was also academically challenged, he was not intellectually disabled. “But he is never going to be writing essays or taking the SATs, however, he is an absolute whiz on the computer,” Sara says.

Gradually, with help from teachers and Sara, Dallin made progress. But it was still not easy. “You have no idea what it is like to have a child who comes home from school and cannot tell you anything that he did that day. It is heartbreaking at times,” she says.

Still Sara clung to hopes for her son, but hopes can be fragile and fleeting in the world of autism.

For a long time, Sara yearned to see some of the ordinary life events for her son that every mother cherishes: a professional haircut, listening to him about talk about his day at school, eating in a restaurant, air travel and and hearing from him over the phone or in an email. Sometimes these seemed like hollow wishes.

But when Dallin reached high school, a remarkable woman entered the Noble’s world: Megan Beatty Gaeta (’08, ’09M), his special needs teacher. She changed Dallin’s life — and Sara’s.

“Megan has made me realize that anything is possible with Dallin and his future. She has given me hope. As a mother, this is huge….She has allowed us to see Dallin’s potential. She has helped him do things we would never have thought possible.”

Megan loves ‘wish lists,'” Sara says, and she has made many of Sara’s wishes come true, including a restaurant meal and a haircut in a salon that Megan worked hard to prepare Dallin for. “My latest wish,” Sara says, “is riding in an airplane. We want to go to Florida in the winter as a family. I told Megan about it and she has set it up so her students are going to be getting a passenger-type experience on an airplane.”

Today Dallin Noble is 16, a rising junior in high school, and every day new wishes come true. As part of a unique class program designed by Megan called “Packaged With Care,” Dallin helps plan, assemble and distribute care packages for community-based charities, learning invaluable life skills along the way.

“Everyday she has my son call me right before the school day is over and tell me about his day,” Sara says. “Some days he uses a script but that is fine with me. I love hearing him talk to me on the phone….something I thought I would never experience.”

But the changes won’t end with Dallin and Sara.

“Because we are so greatly encouraged by Megan, and in an effort to be part of the solution instead of the problem, my husband David and I are hoping to start a working farm of sorts in the Northern Virginia area someday for kids like Dallin and any kind of special needs children,” Sara explains. “The sad truth is that after these kids get out of the system at age 22, there is nothing for them. I refuse to have him sit in the basement and play video games for the rest of his life. We think special needs kids would be great growing things in the garden and selling to to local businesses.”

Although “Dallin Acres,” as they call it, is still a dream, Sara has learned from Megan — and from Dallin — that anything is possible, even dreams and wishes that at first seem impossible.

You can read more about Megan Gaeta in ClassNotes in the soon-to-be-released issue of Madison magazine, where you’ll learn that Sara and her family are not the only ones to recognize Megan’s life-changing talents.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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