"He was starting to say 'mama,' 'nana,' 'daddy' and that stopped," Tiffany said.
The first-time mom says the boy they knew had changed and suddenly they were dealing with what Tiffany described as "aggressive meltdowns, hitting his head on the floor." They didn't know why, but an evaluation gave them some answers.
"Once the interview was over, he sat us down and said he had autism. We were worried," she said.
But she says that diagnosis didn't come with a road map.
"We went to a few places and it was heartbreaking because they weren't able to help us," she said
The Wards aren't alone. About 14,000 children in Houston can't access mental health services. The treatment gap leaves Texas last nationally in per capita mental health spending.
A referral to DePelchin Children's Center helped turn the Ward's lives around.
"Sometimes we get looks like we're terrible parents, why is your kids acting like that? I think it's because it's not out there, people don't know," Tiffany said.
Dr. Alice Mao has worked with children for years.
"I think what people don't realize is that a lot of the time you aren't able to see the mental disorder from the outside," she said.
The Associate Medical Director at DePelchin Children's Center says one out of five children can have mental disorders ranging from stress to bipolar disorder and autism.
"This is a very difficult field to be in because sometimes there are children who need the help but the parents are afraid to take them to see the psychiatrist because that might imply that there is something wrong with their parenting skills," Dr. Mao said.
Teachers often stand on the front line in detecting any potential issues. Dr. Patricia Weger says the teachers are "going to see their behavior in the context of other peers."
Weger is the manager of psychological services for HISD, the largest school district in the region. She says the problems they used to see in high school are now starting as early as elementary school.
"It may be that we're more aware, it may be that we know a lot more about the mental health needs of children than we did 10 or 20 years ago," Dr. Weger said.
New state and federal funding has been approved for additional training to help both teachers and administrators recognize early signs more easily.
The Ward family says they saw a big difference once Stephen was in school. Treatment at DePelchin Children's Center helped him improve even more.
"It's been the light at the end of the tunnel," Tiffany Ward said.
Now simple joys they didn't hear before like the words "I love you" come much easier, and that has brought tears of joy to this mother and father.
May 16 has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Day. Supporters are being asked to wear a green Band-Aid to raise awareness of children's mental health issues and help heal young minds. Go to HealYoungMinds.org for more information.