Roberts speaks the language of children

It’s late at night, and the entire family is getting ready to go to sleep – kids tucked in, lights out. But one boy tosses and turns, unable to turn off his mind. Unable to calm down enough to sleep.

The boy’s name is Grayson Greenhalgh, and he is a smart and caring 11-year-old. He is also on the autism spectrum, making certain situations more difficult to handle – situations as seemingly accessible as falling asleep.

Knowing what to do, his cousin Kaitlyn Roberts leads the boy to her car and takes him for a drive. She talks to him. She’s patient with him. And by the time they return, he is ready to climb back into bed for the night.

Kaitlyn is like nobody else. She knows how to speak autism.

— Sawyer Greenhalgh

This is not uncommon for Kaitlyn. Though she is a senior in high school, she spends most of her time around children the same age or younger than Grayson, whether she is babysitting or volunteering at a hospital. When comparing her last job at a beauty salon to her babysitting, there is no contest.

“Babysitting just makes me smile,” Kaitlyn said. “And I want to be around kids so it doesn’t even feel like I’m working.”

Kaitlyn is particularly close with her aunt Danielle Greenhalgh’s family, spending much of her time watching after Grayson and his younger brother Sawyer.

The family adores her.

“I just love her to pieces,” Danielle said. “I would claim her as my daughter if my sister would let me.”

Roberts underwent a shadowing experience at UC Davis Medical Center over the summer as a child life volunteer.
She now volunteers twice a week at Shriners Hospitals for Children and Sutter Medical Center.

Her relationship with Grayson started the day he was born. She was there when he almost lost his life at three due to medical complications. She has been there through all of the tribulations of growing up. She has always been a constant in his life, even when it is not easy.

One day, when Kaitlyn stopped by her aunt’s house to watch Grayson and his younger brother, Sawyer, she found Grayson in the middle of a meltdown.

Where others might have struggled, she was able to talk him down and redirect his energy into a game. By the time Danielle came home, Sawyer ran up to her saying, “Kaitlyn is like nobody else. She knows how to speak autism.”

The phrase stuck with the family, and now the words “Kaitlyn speaks autism” are how the family describes her knack for understanding kids on the spectrum.

Kaitlyn is the one who supports Grayson when the going gets rough. When Danielle was out of town and Grayson started acting up with another babysitter – upset, spinning around, and unable to communicate his needs effectively – it didn’t matter that Kaitlyn was in the middle of a car ride to Monterey. She Facetimed Grayson, and knowing his personality so well, asked the one question which helped Grayson get his focus back.

“Grayson, do you want bacon?”

Grayson loves bacon.

“One difficulty with a child that has autism is they have trouble expressing themselves,” Nikki Roberts, Kaitlyn’s mother, said, recounting the drive. “And Kaitlyn, being that mentor and nurturing spirit with him, she knows what to say to him to find out what he wants.”

Kaitlyn tags along with the Greenhalghs on family trips to watch after Grayson and Sawyer. On one three-hour drive to the ocean, she spent her time sitting in the back seat with them. When they started to get more restless, she quickly directed their attention to a new game.

“Kaitlyn has always been one to not wait until it becomes a problem. She will jump in and try to redirect and play,” Danielle said. “She’s stern with them and tells them what to do but she does it in a playful manner that they respond to really well.”

Kaitlyn has always had a unique bond with children, especially those with special needs; growing up, she intended to become a special needs teacher. Most days after school, she spends her time with Brett Hayes, a freshman at RHS who is also on the autism spectrum. She helps him with homework and provides a meaningful social connection in what can otherwise seem like a hectic, anxiety-inducing environment.

Roberts plays a card game while babysitting Kamryn Kelley.

On the days she is not with him she often babysits, keeping the kids entertained, whether that’s by snuggling up to watch a movie or riding bikes.

Her relationship with the kids goes beyond her babysitting shift. When one of the kids she looks after, Ethan Linder, had an accident that landed him in the hospital, she took time out of her day to visit him. And it’s this connection that makes it so easy for parents to trust her.

“I can leave my kids with her and I know that they’re 100 percent taken care of,” Heather Linder, Ethan’s mother, said. “She’s amazing. She’s like a little mommy… She has the ability to connect with kids, probably more so than other people do.”

Kaitlyn hopes to become a pediatric nurse – the same profession as Danielle and Heather – partly because the hours are flexible enough to still have time for her own kids.

To help her along the way, Danielle set up a time for her to shadow one of her coworkers at Davis. It piqued her interest, and she later applied to volunteer once a week at both Shriner’s Hospital for Children and Sutter Medical Center. Applying was stressful – between interviews, background checks, and the wait to hear back.

Kaitlyn with her cousin Sawyer Greenhalgh. Roberts spends much of her time working with children, some of them special needs, and plans on pursuing a career in pediatric nursing.

Danielle is proud of Kaitlyn for taking steps to pursue nursing. Kaitlyn reminds her of her grandmother, who the family had to say goodbye to last year, and she wants nothing less than for Kaitlyn to have everything she needs as she discovers her passion.

“We always said that my mom was an angel on earth, and Kaitlyn is exactly like my mom,” Danielle said. “She is just so loving and always ready to help people and eager to go out of her way to be an absolutely amazing person.”

This leaves her well-suited for her volunteer positions. Shriner’s is smaller compared to Sutter, giving her the chance to explore two different experiences – the excitingly hectic big company, and the more personalized small hospital – but both give her the chance to learn about being a nurse.

She’s found the nature of being a nurse can be beautiful but also sometimes painful, especially when dealing with children who are suffering or terminal.

“It’s hard to see what the kids go through because it’s not easy in the hospital,” Kaitlyn said. “But it gives me more of an insight.”

And no matter what the children are going through, she has the chance to help them through it, which is rewarding in it’s own way. She still remembers when a little girl, sick though she was, reached out saying she wanted to hold her hand and be her friend.

“It was sweet,” Kaitlyn said.