Meet Fallon Lapp, a 7-year-old dinosaur enthusiast who loves to ride his bicycle and cheer for the Pittsburgh Penguins. At first glance, Fallon looks like any other young boy, but still, there is one critical difference between Fallon and his fellow comrades.
He has Autism Spectrum Disorder, a disorder of brain development characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Despite this, he is an average kid and, like many other kids his age, he has discovered a love for hockey.
On Saturday, Oct. 12, one hour before Niagara hockey opened its conference schedule against archrival Canisius, Fallon was given the surprise of a lifetime – standing before NU’s 29-man roster in home locker room, he was presented with a signed Purple Eagle jersey and puck.
The opportunity would not have come about if it wasn’t for the decision to return back to the classroom by Fallon’s mother, Carly Lapp. The nontraditional Niagara student is a mother to three boys working toward her undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in sociology, and currently writing an honors thesis on the misconceptions and stereotypes of autism.
“Niagara University is my ‘second’ chance at college, and not everyone is blessed with this amazing opportunity, and I thank God for it daily,” the Phi Theta Kappa member said. “It is because of my children that I made the decision to return to school. Although I must admit, the true catalyst behind this was Fallon.”
The Lapp’s world changed forever when Fallon was diagnosed with autism. However, instead of closing ranks, Carly relentlessly began to pursue services to help him make gains in development despite his diagnosis, all while attending class at NU.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Fallon and his family, hitting road blocks at every turn when trying to find the proper amenities to make him the successful kid he is today.
“It was very difficult when I first came to the realization that he had an issue,” Carly explained. “After understanding what the issue was and getting that diagnosis, it still didn’t prepare me for the battle that I had to fight in order to get him the services.”
Issues revolved around inadequate funding for children with autism, and refusal to accept Fallon into such programs due to his high IQ. The Niagara Falls Board of Education labeled Fallon as a “bright little boy with a speech impediment,” according to Carly, and as a result she had to fight tooth and nail alongside an educational advocate to eventually get Fallon into a therapeutic preschool, followed by a kindergarten classroom where he excelled.
“I can laugh about it now, but it was a lot to handle and psychology it weighs heavy on you,” Carly said. “You wonder why these people aren’t helping my son. I had to go get all these tests done, and yet the Board of Education was still saying the tests were false.”
Thinking the family had finally found a place for Fallon to grow was short lived, however, when the school decided it no longer fit his needs. The education system threw him into a classroom with 32 kids in the Niagara Falls school district and he ended up regressing due his lack of experience in that type of environment.
“It was like throwing someone into the jungle and saying, ‘find your way home,’” Carly described.
During the course of that year, Carly began to look for other options, and an opportunity fell onto her lap.
“I’ve always used Buffalo Speech and Hearing as an adjunct for speech for Fallon when he was on break,” Carly said. “They had approached me about a new school in Buffalo called the West Buffalo Charter School that focuses on language and literacy, and they believed Fallon would be a nice fit.”
Thinking it had to be a much better situation than they were in, the family enrolled him. Fast forward two years, and a $600 monthly gas bill, Fallon is once again surpassing all expectations. One of the top students in reading in his class, Fallon is mainstreamed in a classroom with 19 other second grade students and receives help from a special education staff when needed.
To go along with his educational improvements, Fallon is playing organized soccer and boxing. He even helps coach while in the ring as well, serving as a role model and helping out with workouts with the little kids.
His true joy lies in hockey.
“My advisor, Dr. (Tim) Osberg, suggested that since Fallon is such a big hockey fan, we should get in touch with Coach (Dave) Burkholder to see if Fallon could attend a game,” Carly said. “I thought nothing of it, believing maybe we’d get to see a game and, if we were lucky, meet his favorite player, Matt Williams.”
So on behalf of Carly, Dr. Osberg took a shot at requesting a meet-and-greet with a few of the NU hockey members, and Coach Burkholder jumped at the opportunity to help out the young boy, inviting both Fallon and his mother as guests to the Niagara versus Canisius contest.
What she was not expecting was red carpet treatment for her boy. Coach Burkholder and the team invited Fallon into the locker room before puck drop where a signed Purple Eagle jersey with No. 5 displayed on the back was waiting for him. Postgame, Fallon was presented with the signed game-winning puck after Niagara’s thrilling comeback victory.
“Coach Burkholder is an amazing person and is a testament to the university, not just as a coach, but as an individual and I think the message the university wants to convey is within him,” Carly said. “He leads by example and it shows not only through his players, but by him and his family and how gracious they are.”
“I don’t give these compliments freely,” added Carly. “I’ve been through a lot with my son and I know that it’s always a fight. So for someone to just be as open and giving as him restores my faith in humanity.”
Unfortunately, Carly didn’t even get an opportunity to see Fallon’s reaction to meeting the squad as the 7-year-old confidently told his mom that he was more than capable of handling this on his own, leaving her in the coach’s office with Coach Burkholder’s wife and daughter.
“Walking Fallon into the locker room before the game and seeing his big smile will be a memory I will cherish for a very long time,” Coach Burkholder recounted. “He’s a special boy, and it was our pleasure to make his acquaintance. Fallon’s love for the team and his favorite player, Matt Williams, brought a positive energy to the room. He is now a part of our brotherhood and hope he wears his jersey proudly. We are proud of him!”
“Being able to put a smile on Fallon’s face was very rewarding for the team and I,” added Williams, who presented the signed jersey to the avid fan. “It was a great experience for everyone and we look forward to having him be a part of the Niagara hockey family this year.”
Leading up to that eventful evening, every step of this journey for Carly and Fallon has been a struggle and there is no doubt a few more bumps in the road are bound to occur. It is safe to say though that a simple game of hockey, and the actions of Dave Burkholder and his young team, were able to make a little boy and his mother forget about past troubles and reestablish some faith in the people around them.