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  • Christmas is 500 miles away

    Christmas is 500 miles away. Yes, it’s Christmas.  Spending this particular holiday alone is torture. This year there is no tree, no lights, no joyous laughter or smell of cookies. This year my son Matt and my husband Tom are 500 miles away and not due to return until mid-January.  There’s something very wrong about enduring such a special holiday alone.  Yes, we have other children, but we (Tom,Matt and I) don’t seem to register on their radar this year.  It doesn’t matter, it has always been Matt and Tom that bring the Christmas spirit each year and I am use to feeding off their wondrous energy come December.  Except I don’t have them near me this year. This is my first Christmas away from Matt and I am acting as if I am in mourning. He has always given such life to this holiday – it’s not Christmas without him.  I miss him more than I can bear. Memories have flooded my mind all day long.  I think of how Matt plays the “Christmas Story” all day long.  I think about taking him shopping in the weeks and days before Christmas and I can almost feel his enthusiasm, his joy and his mission. I think of him singing, laughing, smiling and how his very presence makes the thrill and excitement of the holiday tangible.  I think about how Matt even buys himself a gift each year, wraps it himself and places it beneath the tree.  Then on Christmas morning he is surprised and excited to find his self-wrapped gift and opens it with amazement, as if Santa himself had placed it there just for him just hours before.  I think of how much a simple Christmas card in the mail means to him, how he enjoys the cards just as much as the gifts.  Small trinkets are just as important as anything expensive. It’s not the gift, you see, it’s the gesture and the sheer joy of brightly wrapped presents - after all, Christmas is a time for giving.  For me, Matt makes Christmas seem magical and reinforces the true meaning of the day. But this year the house is quiet, except of course, for the clicking of the keyboard as I type and the heavy breathing of my dogs.  This year, Matt only received 1 Christmas card and it was from me.  No one else remembered him (shame on his siblings – they should know better). He has no tree, no extravagant presents wrapped in joyous ribbons and bows.  He did however buy himself a gift, wrapped it and laid it beneath a small string of colored lights – and that one gift makes Christmas - he is happy with this.  Tom has tried to make the holiday festive as best he could with the limited resources we have. We both remember last year and how badly Matt’s heart ached for his daddy to come home – his tears broke my heart. Now here it is one year later and again his heart aches, this time to be home with me for Christmas.  Fortunately, he was better prepared and thus seems to be handling it better. In addition, I have promised him a Christmas in January and I will be true to my word, but it doesn’t take the place of the actual Christmas day –nothing ever does.  To add a bit of wonder, Tom has placed a secret gift below the lights while Matt sleeps.  It isn’t much, hard times have prevented us from doing very much, but Matt won’t care about price tags.  It will say it is from Santa and Matt will be amazed. Christmas will happen for Matt and it will be filled with wonder, laughter, and smiles.  Unfortunately, Christmas for me will be tearful and oh, so lonely.  All I can do is count down the days. Next year will be different. Tom has secured a transfer back to Virginia and home.  We will not have to endure the months apart, the stress of holidays alone and the financial burden of running two places of residence.  In twenty days we will start anew. I will see Tom and Matt, and I can’t wait. Until then, I will listen to his laughter over the phone and picture his joy in my mind . . . and shed my tears. Christmas may come only once a year, but in 20 days I will begin to have Christmas in my home . . . every day . . .all year.

  • Starting Anew in A New Year

    Soon it will be 2011 and a new round of resolutions are in order.  I am optimistic for this new year - first time in a long time.  Tom and Matt will once again be under the same roof as I.  Just think of it - both parents working in the same time zone! Of course, I have a list of personal goals I have set for myself - one of them is to focus heavily on completing my book, and some goals I have set for Matt. I keep reminding myself I must consider Matt’s future in deciding what is next in my list of life lessons I need to teach him. Ah yes, the elusive future. Does anyone actually ever figure out their future? Of course, I want all the usual things for my autistic son – more educational experience, spend more time just hangin with him, and teach him as many new things as possible.  But all of these are vague and to be honest, pretty wimpy.  What I want – make that need – is to make some concrete plans. It's time to narrow down just one goal to a very specific achievable goal.  For this new year I want Matt to take a college art course. An art course would have several bonuses. In addition to learning new art techniques,   Matt would meet people, have a schedule, learn responsibility and engage his mind.  I know I have discussed his fear of grades before, but if we sign him up to audit a class then grades will not be a factor.  If the class is at the same campus where I teach, then transportation will not be an issue either.  So . . . now I just need to talk Matt in to it. I have been subtly nudging Matt toward taking classes for the past few years.  His facial expression reveals this to be his least favorite topic. I can’t bribe him like I used to when he was young (a bag of peanut M&Ms just won’t cut it nowadays). I am thinking instead about using a technique over the next several months that I have not used in a long, long time. I’m going to discuss the wonders of meeting new people.  For most of Matt’s life, meeting new people would have resulted in fear, putting on the breaks, or finding a place to hide.  Matt is 25 years old next month and he doesn’t show fear anymore – just “disapproval”, he doesn’t put on the brakes – just gives me a dirty look, and he certainly doesn’t find a place to hide – though Iam sure he thinks about it.  For the most part, Matt is old enough and advanced in his autism enough to actually want to be around a group, listen to light-hearted conversations, and he even tries very hard to fit in.  Of course, he still stays on the periphery of a group, but over the past few years I have witnessed his desire to participate and know he can be coaxed in with friendly gestures and smiles.  Matt's eagerness to participate in family events tells me it’s time to get him to participate in other types of life events.  There are many events outside the home and family that Matt would enjoy  - especially college plays and sports events. Matt finds these types of group settings most excellent.  as for the college campus, he knows my campus well and knows many of the people already, and is comfortable enough to hang out alone while I am in class.  So . . . a spring play, a few baseball games, maybe an art gallery exhibit, a lot of coaxing and maybe, just maybe, I can get Matt interested in taking that art class.  The class is scheduled for next fall, which means I have approximately 8 months to convince him that classes could be fun. Wish us luck – we may need just need it.

  • A Miracle Beneath the Tears

    Matt is autistic. When it comes to conversing, Matt is very autistic.  Although he has come a long way from where he started 22 years ago (when autism first revealed itself at the age of 2), he still has many obstacles to overcome - not the least of which is being able to initiate a conversation.  I can ask Matt questions and he can reply – no problem. If I bring up the topic I can get him started on a conversation.  Matt is intelligent.  He knows quite a bit about many subject areas and tons about his favorite subjects; VT football, Manga, Dale Earnhardt, and his art.  The problem is that someone else needs to initiate the conversation to get him started.  Ask Matt about the latest ranking of VT football and he’ll give you the stats, smile and look directly into your eyes as he waits for the next question.  Ask him about our dogs, cats, general family welfare and he’ll give you the “They’re fine!”  If something unusual happens during his day he’ll tell you all about it – as long as you inquire specifically about the incident.  It may be that he fears looking different than other people or may even fear speaking.  Maybe he views the knowledge he possesses on specific matters as all general knowledge and therefore sees no reason to actually have to say it out loud. He’ll tell me someone called, but I have to ask first, “Matt, did anyone call today?”  I’m still working on this problem. Until I can figure it out I will continue to initiate the conversation. It seems as though Matt has always been this way.  I know I need to ask and keep asking if I am to keep the conversation going.  When he’s very excited over a particular subject he’ll keep the conversation going without too much prodding.  Mostly, Matt is happy and content. He sees no need to engage in conversation.  There are times at family get-togethers where Matt watches, listens, laughs and smiles as others tell a story.  On occasion Matt will give me “that look” –the one asking me to help him join in the conversation – and I will oblige. “Christopher, tell Matt the funny story you just told me.” His brother, Christopher, will turn to face toward Matt and begin the story again.  Matt’s face displays joy, his eyes locked on his brother, showing Christopher he is paying attention and providing feedback in intervening short sentences, such as “Oh my!”, and laughter. Christopher can keep Matt engaged in a discussion better than anyone.  Matt just doesn’t initiate a conversation – it’s just not him.  I assumed his autism made it too difficult. Then, a few weeks ago something wonderful happened. It began when my computer died.  The blue screen of death had me in a panic.  I’m a teacher.  All my grades, assignments, exams and contact information for my students reside in that metal box of binary code.  Christopher, my personal IT guy, was advised of the problem and we were discussing what could be done about my possible loss of data.  We were discussing various options on the phone.  Matt, Tom and I had been sitting in the living room watching TV and had put our movie on pause to converse with Christopher on the phone.  I made the suggestion that perhaps we could pull Matt’s old computer out of storage and transfer the hard drives.  Matt has a laptop computer now and has not used his regular computer for years.  Matt’s eyes flashed.  He gave me a quick look.  What was that for? I wondered, but then quickly put the question on hold as I continued trying to figure out what to do about my computer.  Tom scheduled a time to drop my poor computer off with Christopher for the next day.  We hung up and went back to watching our movie. I had already forgotten about the “look” Matt had given me. Hours later I headed for bed and grabbed my nightly hug from Matt.  He gave me a big hug, said good night and I shut my bedroom door.  Not a second had gone by before I heard a light tapping on the door.  I opened the door to see Matt, tears welling up in his eyes and a look of fear on his face. “Momma, I have to tell you something”, he began.  “OK Matt,” I replied.  “I don’t like computers.”, his voice wavering.  He started to cry. “What’s wrong, Matt?  Here, come sit with me a moment.” I said walking him toward my bed. We both sat on the edge.  “I hate computers.  Remember the bad stuff?  I don’t want my computer – ever!” he said as forceful as he could. Oh! I get it.  Matt was remembering the last time his computer was in his room.  I had found some pornographic material on it and had grounded him.  Come to think of it, Matt hasn’t surfed the Web since – something I hadn’t even noticed until he said that. “Oh Matt, that was a long time ago. You were just a teenager back then. The computer is clean – no bad stuff on it anymore.  Actually, your computer may be able to save all my teaching stuff for work.  Matt, your computer might save the day.” I tried to explain. Matt was showing some signs of relief, but he was still confused.  This incident with my computer had sparked a bad memory for him and he didn’t know what to think.  He was afraid that bringing the computer back might cause him to be grounded again – a most horrific feeling for Matt. We sat for maybe 15 minutes on the side of the bed. He talked to me, without me asking questions.  He needed no prodding to empty his soul to me about his fears.  I understood his concerns and addressed them.  I had no idea he wasn’t on the Internet anymore and vowed to help him get back on-line again.  We conversed. He told me his fears and expressed his anxiety over the Internet. I explained the whole computer mess to him, assured him his computer would not cause him anymore anxiety, and promised to help him get back on-line. We have a wireless and he’s quite capable of logging on but he fears the Internet may lead him to places that he is not allowed to go.  I believe it will take some time to calm his nerves completely in regards to the Internet (something we will be working on). Although Matt felt bad about the computer I can’t help but see the wonderful miracle beneath the tears. Matt initiated the conversation. He asked me questions, told me of his anxiety and fears and expressed his concerns about having the offending computer back in the house. I answered each question and explained the reasoning for needing the computer.  I also reminded him that the memory that haunted him so was from a long time ago, when he was still a child.  We talked. Tom sat on the other side of the bed quietly listening to our conversation.  When it was all over Matt gave me a hug and kiss.  His eyes were bright again and a smile had returned to his face. “Good night, Matt” I said as he headed for the door.  “Good night, momma” he replied.  A moment later all was back to normal - except it wasn’t. It dawned on me as the door closed that something wonderful had just happened. I had just had a real, honest to goodness “normal” conversation with my youngest son for the very first time.

  • Honorable Mention from Writer's Digest: Art Transforms a Mind

    Art Transforms a Mind (Competion Article) by Elizabeth Becker When my son, Matt,was a little over year old he would hold up a ball and turn it this way and that, looking at it from all angles. I knew that day that Matt would be an artist. What I did not know was that he would be autistic. When the symptoms of autism crept in, it seemed to put Matt’s mind on hold, and in many ways regress. It was several years before I noticed that his eye for perspective and talent toward perceptual – conceptual art was still intact. Matt began his art as all children do –scribbles with crayon, lines on a page – what I call his “primitive art”. I felt his drawings revealed his mind and I always looked at his art with a deep interest, trying to find the meaning behind each drawing. One of his early drawings - a set 3 V-shaped lines in row after row - was finally deciphered as the large power lines that traversed the mountains near our home. It was that “light-bulb” moment that led me to investigate every drawing thereafter. Matt was about 3 years old when I showed him how to trace a picture, allowing him to draw anything he wanted and have the end-product look similar to the original. He was unhappy with his own simple renderings and was easily frustrated when his art didn’t quite meet his own high standards. Tracing gave him a new found pleasure in art. At school he couldn’t trace. He had to do his school work before he could enjoy his one true joy – drawing. Every day when Matt returned home from school I would unpack his back pack to get out his papers and read the teacher’s or aide’s messages. Each day I found the most interesting drawings on the back side of his assignment papers. Unable to trace, Matt had to recall his favorite items from memory and draw what he saw in his mind’s eye. These were of course very child-like drawings, not up to Matt’s standards of perfection. Years went by as I watched him teach himself how to recall detail in order to perfect his art. His ability to draw from memory was learned– Matt taught himself. He would sit in is room and draw the same picture over and over. Matt never erased. Each time a line was drawn at the wrong angle or too long he would crumble the entire sheet into a ball and toss it away. He had to have perfection. His hands would draw slowly at first, getting each detail just right. Then he would repeat the process over and over until his hands could fly across the page and draw the most intricate of pictures in under 5minutes. This isn’t all that unusual if you think about it. Lots of people train their hands – crocheting, knitting, driving a stick-shift. Practice over and over allows you to perform a function without looking, allowing a person who crochets to watch the television, or a person driving a manual transmission to keep their eyes on the road. Matt’s love was drawing and he trained his hands to draw without thinking. This allowed him to draw any time and any where without having any of his beloved train books in front of him or his favorite movie on the TV. He began taking paper and pencil with him where ever we went – always ready to draw if the need overtook him. Drawing calmed his mind, allowed him to focus on the minute and decreased his fear of new surroundings and sounds. He used his art to communicate as well, telling me what he needed and what he was thinking. Matt had found a way to make peace with his world. As Matt got older his interest veered more toward animation. The cartoons he watched became a daily ritual and the characters became his imaginary friends. He would repeat the spoken lines of each character and add a few responses from himself. His new friends began to show up in his art. Again, Matt would practice drawing each facet, his hands moving slowly at first. He practiced drawing just eyes, then just facial expressions, and then body gestures. Page after page of practice allowed him to then combine these pieces to show any situation and every type of movement. Each new drawing became more and more detailed. Between the ages of 12 and 16 Matt learned to draw himself and began putting himself in his drawing with his cartoon friends. Self portraits take time to master. Matt would look at himself in the mirror above his dresser and make various expressions. He wanted the hair to be just right, the expression to convey just the right emotion. As a part of learning to draw, Matt was also learning new social skills. He used his animated self to interact with his animated friends, converse, and display both sad times and good. Watching him interact with animated characters concerned me – was this new behavior a good thing or a bad thing? I chose to think of it as a good thing – after all, he was learning to interact, even if it was not with real people. I’m glad I decided to just let it flow out of him this way because I soon realized his ability to interact with real, live people was improving dramatically. Matt had used the safety of his art to practice social skills and emotion. After getting comfortable with his animated friends he could now test his new-found skills on family members and school mates. Matt found a way to enter our world without overwhelming fear of the unknown – it was truly amazing to behold. Matt has never stopped learning. Autism is not a static condition with children doomed to always be as they were at 2 years old. They learn, they change, they adapt to new situations. Autism causes fear of the unknown, but given a supportive environment they learn to move past the fear and attempt the incredible – entering our world. I look at Matt’sdrawings now and see a progression of determination and talent. I see a child growing and learning and emerging from beneath the dark cloud of autism. Would I have been that strong? Could I have done what he has done? I don’t know. Matt still takes paper and pencils with him where ever we go. Most times it is like taking a safety blanket and the items are never used. Sometimes he sees something and just needs to draw it – liket he various street signs, or the beach at Hatteras, but these drawings are for later use in the stories he writes. You see, Matt’s art needed dialogue.  After all, animation, comic books and cartoons all have a story line. So Matt not only draws, he writes. Where in earlier years he could only communicate through his body language, he now can communicate through words, emotion, body language, and various forms of art. His stories revolve around his own life, historical events, and places he has both visitedand places he has yet to see.  His sentences are clear, his paragraphs well written. Art has transformed his mind. Matt is now 24 years old.  He graduated high school with a GPA of 3.85 and number 4 in his class.  He was a National Honor Society member and is in Who’s Who Among High School Students.  He can converse, though he keeps his comments quite short, and he has very good eye contact. He displays every emotion including humor and empathy.  The great strides that he has achieved are all a result of his attention to detail, hours upon hours of practice and the animated friendships he developed through his love of art. If I could pinpoint one pivotal moment in Matt’s life that changed everything it would have to be the day that I put Matt in my lap, placed a pencil in his hand, placed my hand gently over his and we began to trace. I didn’t know it at the time, but that one act, that simple, 15 minutes of attention, gave Matt the one thing he needed to transform his entire life – a love for art.

  • Love and other mysterious emotions

    When Matt was first diagnosed some 23 years ago the professionals of the day considered autistic children incapable of showing true emotions.  I look back now and smile, but back then it made me furious.  There really wasn't anyone who knew anything concrete about autism then, even though some professed to know much. The one behavior that each would spout but was totally wrong was that autistic individuals were basically unable to display real emotion.  My experiences with my autistic son Matt, has made it indisputeable - there is plenty of emotion; sadness, joy, fear, love,  -  it's just not as obvious sometimes.  Autism does not a mindless robot make. Over the years I have seen plenty of emotions.  Empathy and love are the 2 emotions that are sometimes difficult to see - but they're there. Let me tell you about a recent example. I had surgery a few weeks ago on my back and have been unable to sit comfortably at the computer for any length of time.  I am just now getting back online from what seems like a very long absence.  My mind has been on increasing my stamina, learning to walk and taking care of myself.  Of course, my mind is also on how Matt deals with mommy's physical limitations.  I have included him in the healing process - he immediately rose to the challenge.  I first talked to him before the surgery.  He knew the pain I was in and helped me around the house and with shopping and taking care of our three dogs. After surgery, he has been more than willing to get me up and moving again.  The doctor suggested that I walk each and every day and so I have asked Matt to help me.  We dress warmly and go out on the deck.  Matt juts out his elbow for me to grab and then escorts me as we walk around the deck.  His face shows both concern and strength. He slows at the steps and waits as I take the stairs. He knows I am determined to walk around the deck 3 times before heading back inside and keeps count as each lap is completed.  Matt then opens the door, blocks the dogs from jumping on me, and escorts me to the couch where he then puts on a movie for us to sit and watch. So what's the big deal?  First, Matt demonstrates patience as he walks me around.  He never hurries. He leads me away from any snow or slick areas and slows at the steps.  I didn't tell him to slow down or to watch for ice - he just knows.  Second, he blocks the dogs from jumping on me. We have big dogs and one good leap toward me could knock me down, but I don't worry about it after seeing Matt instinctively protect me from even the possibility of harm.  These things demonstrate empathy. After our walk we view a movie - which until lately was something Matt rarely ever did.  He likes watching most movies alone so he can talk and laugh and act out certain scenes. Lately though, Matt and I have watched movie after movie for hours on end.  Matt wants me to stay seated - I guess he doesn't trust me to just sit there without him (which, I must confess, I would not).  Matt selects the DVD and also acts as the projectionist, which means I have nothing better to do than sit.  This demonstrates caring and love.  Matt wants me to rest, which will lead to me getting better and stronger. Of course, everyday Matt shows he loves me.  I get hugs. He hugs me when he gets up, when we finish our walk and again every night at bedtime.  And he says, "I love you, momma", everyday, several times a day.  It's obvious that he loves me.  So if you come across any site that has "inability to express real emotion or show emotional bonding" listed as a trait of autism then you know it's pure BS. Autism is not static.  A young autistic child may at first appear not to care, but that by no means indicates they don't.  If autism is anything it is dynamic and ever changing.  And that brings with it another emotion . . . hope.

  • Independence Begins

    This story is the follow-up on Matt taking his first unaccompanied stroll.  Matt is in North Carolina with my husband Tom (where Tom works) and I am at home in Virginia. Yesterday was the practice walk.  Tom gave Matt his own key and identification card and a key to the mailbox.  He also gave Matt a note for his wallet which provided all the emergency information.  Matt put it in his wallet without question.  Tom and Matt took a practice stroll together earlier in the day, turning left out of the apartment and walking to the mailbox.  From the mailbox they took a path that passed one of the swimming pools and circled around toward the front of the massive complex of apartments and straight toward the weight-room.  Matt practiced using his new identification pass to unlock the door and they scoped out the various equipment.  Shortly after, they strode back to their apartment and Matt got to use his entry key. No problems. Later that afternoon Matt decided it was time for his own walk.  He left the building and unexpectedly turned right.  Matt is a creature a habit.  Each time he has been out so far has been with Tom and they have always taken the exact same route.  Both Tom and I expected Matt would continue this same routine.  Tom watched from a safe distance as Matt disappeared around the next corner.  He never looked back. He walked with confidence and purpose.  His gait was quick.  Matt called me.  “Hi mama!” he exclaimed.  “Hi Matt!” I exclaimed back.  “Well, I’m on my walk!” I could hear the excitement in his voice.  This was his time. “Great!” I said, “I’ll talk to you later”.  “O.K, bye!” he returned.  Matt was alone, outside, in an unfamiliar town, taking a leisurely, yet purposeful stroll around his neighborhood.  I looked at the clock.  I paced. I played some computer solitaire and I thought about my son.  The phone rang again.  “Hi mama!” Matt exclaimed into my ear. “Hi Matt. Where are you now?” I asked.  “I’m back at the apartment” he replied. Really? So soon?  I looked at the clock again.  Only four minutes had passed.  He told me he had gone all the way around the complex.  I could hear in his voice how proud he was of himself. Tom called soon after. He told me how he had watched from the window as Matt turned right at the sidewalk.  He revealed how anxious he was when Matt disappeared around the corner - out of sight. I knew Tom must have been holding his breath.  I told him I had timed him and it had only been 4 minutes.  He told me he had timed him from when he left the building and it actually had been 6.  We both marveled at how fast he lapped the complex. Today, Tom is working. I asked Matt to please not go for his walk until after 4pm.  Routines are needed and at 4pm each day I should be home for his call.  The closer it got to 4pm the more anxious I got, waiting for his call, waiting to hear he was on his walk.  Finally the phone rang close to 4:30pm.  “Hi mama!” Matt said.  “Hi Matt, are you on your walk?” I asked.  “Uh, no. I already been.”  Matt had gone on his walk – and forgot to call me first.  We talked about his path,where he decided to go and it turned out to be the same as usual – even turning  left from the apartment as he had done many times before.  He had decided to stick to old routines. He had even gone to the weight room, but someone was there and he left almost immediately.  Matt is wary of strangers (thank God!). So, his first independent walk went well. He will walk almost every day and at sometime in the future, perhaps next week, perhaps next month, Matt will choose a new path and venture out.  He’ll slow down and take his time as he investigates the world without a hovering parent.  Matt has shopped in stores alone, he has stayed at home alone and now he ventures out alone.  Someday we will move forward again and Matt will take a bus to a destination of his choosing.  That used to feel a million miles away.  Now it feels as if it could happen tomorrow.

  • An Afternoon at Radford University

    Matt had been looking forward to it for weeks.  When I told him I would be teaching a class at my alma mater Matt immediately expressed his desire to go with me.  Of course, Matt wasn’t interested in sitting in on my class.  He was excited about exploring the campus.  Matt loves exploring college campuses.  Radford University is one of his favorites –mostly because he remembers when I was a student there.  He knows the science buildings rather well.  Matt had gone with me several days prior when I signed my contract, paid for parking and did all the little things that come with a new hire.  He had to checkout the bookstore, the fountain, and get a Mountain Dew from one of the many vending machines.  We talked about how different the campus looked after so many years.  New buildings had sprung up in almost every corner, spreading the college to what seemed twice its size. Tom was still home when I started my teaching days for RU.  His new job was still a week or so away (in Montgomery, Alabama) and he was delighted to hang out on campus with Matt while my class was in session. We agreed to meet at the jeep at 3:00pm. After class I walked to the jeep.  It was still a few minutes before 3 and the guys were not there yet.  I put my book-bag in the jeep and glanced around.  I recognized Matt’s hat right away.  Tom and Matt were sitting in the shade at a small patio behind the science building.  As I called for them they looked up and waved.  I knew immediately that their time on campus had been enjoyable – Matt was smiling ear to ear, an excited swagger to his steps meant he was feeling good – really feeling good –about who he is. I love that look. I heard about his purchase of an RU t-shirt from thebookstore, his leisurely ride on his Razor scooter between Young and Porterfield Halls, and his sketches of the campus.  I couldn’t wait to see his sketches.  Matt loves to draw buildings. Each time we take Matt to Virginia Tech he draws a different statue or building.  It’s apparent Matt loves the architecture.  On Radford University’s campus he drew one of the older buildings, the McConnell Library. Tom told me they sat in grass in full sunlight with a straight on view of the library.  Unfortunately, the day was quite warm, rather hot in the full sun and Matt was getting hot. Uncomfortable but determined, his hands flew across the page and within 5-7 minutes had drawn McConnell Library and expressed his need to find some shade. Wow, 5-7 minutes.  I couldn’t draw my first line in that amount of time, much less a rough draft of the whole building! I was amazed – as always – of his artistic ability, and congratulated him on a job well done. I really wish I could convince Matt to take a class – especially an art class.  Alas, Matt is leery of classes.  He hates exams and has an awful fear of failure, though I suspect there is something much deeper going on in his mind.  I see it on his face and in his eyes. I think the un-named fear is that someone will tell him to do it differently.  Matt has his own way of doing everything and although he takes suggestions very well (not that he follows them every time) but he takes criticism – even constructive criticism –poorly.  The best remarks upon improving technique would be seen as insulting. His art is his art.  There is not an artist in the world, regardless of how admired, that could put a grade on his art.  To Matt, all of his art is deserving of an  A+, even the drafts.  If he improves upon a drawing it is because it is requested gently, for reasons other than neatness of the lines or depth of the shading. I can sometimes get Matt to improve a work of art if I request it from a different angle.  I looked at his beautiful rough draft and thought how great it would be if he had done it in pen.  The striking contrast of  black ink on white paper would really make the details stand out.  Yes, I made the request.  His face scrunched – as if I had just insulted his ability. I explained that I wanted one to put on this web site and that it would show up better than the pencil draft.  He thought for a moment and decided my motives were pure enough to do one for me in ink. This is why Matt doesn’t bother with art school.  He fears criticism.  He would need a facilitator for explaining the demands of each course and his facilitator would have to know just how to phrase each comment on technique.  I wish I could be his facilitator, attend his courses and re-phrase each instruction so that Matt would feel at ease, feel that higher education was exciting and enjoyable and not just one demanding chore after another.  I can’t – I have to work to pay the bills like everyone else I know.  But wouldn’t it be great to really help Matt to go down a different road?  An education in art would bring out new renderings of architecture that he could sell, make a living at, and help him to live within his own little niche. Matt has been drawing now for almost 45 minutes.  He didn’t redraw the sketch. Instead, he inked over it, improving this line and that. He took his time, he concentrated on the original piece of art, and true to his nature, never changed the essence of the picture.  The black on white contrast is eye catching.  I knew it would be. I uploaded both to “Matt’s Art” page of this site so you can judge for yourself. As parents we always want the absolute best for our children.  We want their dreams to come true, taking precedence over even our own dreams.  It is more so when the child is autistic.  They need an extra boost, some additional support, and more focus on the future to see their dreams fulfilled. Our other children are in charge of their own futures now, but Matt’s future is quite dependent on me.  So even though Matt will not take another college course this year, there’s always the possibility for next year.  Until then, Matt will continue to acclimate to the college atmosphere as long as I keep encouraging him to come along.  And, I will continue to make gentle suggestions about his art in an attempt to alleviate his fear of criticism.  One day soon it will dawn on me how to persuade him to try a new technique, take up a new medium or subject matter in an attempt to broaden his horizons.  Until then, I will continue to be astounded at who he is now.

  • A Road Less Traveled

    The young autistic child seems captive to another world. Matt’s first teachers assumed this as Matt appeared withdrawn, in another world, and they assumed he wasn’t learning. I was guilty of such thoughts myself about "a world of his own" too for a short while. It’s what one is told and it’s easy to believe. Fortunately, it’s not true. Matt was in the dark, in a fearful place, but he was still in my world and I in his. This story is about the enlightenment that comes when those around you also see that our world and the autistic’s world is one and the same. Matt learned his alphabet very differently than you or I. First, instead of reciting the alphabet song, Matt shadow danced. He created shadows using his body and the shadows that were cast looked like each letter. He always started with A and could not stop – for anything – until he had reached the letter Z. He only did his dance when he was alone, for the simple pleasure of expressing new knowledge. At school, no one paid Matt much attention. He hid under tables or walked the perimeter of the classroom, but he never interacted during the lessons. His teachers thought it best to just let him be. But Matt fooled them all. He not only heard each lesson, he was able to express what he learned in a unique, artistic manner. Once I let Matt know how beautiful his shadows were through praise and requests for more, he became confident enough to begin showing them to me upon request. I brought his shadow dance to the attention of his teachers. They observed his creative display of the alphabet and were amazed. It was an eye opening experience for them. They soon realized Matt was not in another world, he was in their world, albeit in the shadows, but he was there - and he was learning. This provided a challenge to the teachers to be creative themselves. They needed to test Matt in order to grade his knowledge level. In order to get an accurate estimate of his ability they would need to think in very creative ways themselves. After viewing the beauty and creativity of the shadow dance his teachers understood that Matt was in essence, throwing down the gauntlet for them to think outside the box. The teachers rose to the occasion and I am very proud of each one for meeting the challenge with such enthusiasm. The shadow dance began to disappear as Matt began to write. When he finally wrote the alphabet out letter by letter the finished product was perfect. But watching him write it out was the fun part. The rest of us neurotypical individuals learn to read and write left to right on a page. We’re not born knowing which direction to read and write – we learn it. Matt had not practiced much in the writing process but he was learning the alphabet. His first few weeks actually writing the letters showed me quite clearly that we think in an order that is learned. For Matt, learning was an alternate route – a destination that could be arrived at by various roads. Matt decided to start with the letter Z on the right side of the page and wrote each of the letters, in reverse order, right to left. The finished product was identical to the line of consecutive letters of the alphabet. If you hadn’t seen him actually write it you would have no idea that the task had been completed in reverse. Teaching the autistic child is an adventure in creativity. You get to witness the unique ways in which the human mind can take-in and process new information. In addition, you get to use the creative parts of your own mind to help meet the needs of a child. In doing so, we get to venture down the road less traveled. Our journey allows us to see and experience a greater world - a world that both the autistic individual and the non-autistic individual can share.

  • Potentially Speaking

    Potentially Speaking . . . It's back to school time and I am getting to know my new crop of students.  I have known them now for almost 2 weeks and have already seen the tremendous potential they possess.  I teach at several levels; high school dual-credit, college freshman and college sophomores.  I teach 17 year olds and adults in their 50sand beyond.  The students come from every socioeconomic class, race and culture. When I walk into class I find myself filing away the potential success of those in my keep.  A parent returning to college after 20 years, a 17 year old with dreams of being a Lawyer, an 18 year old trying to juggle course work with campus activities – all are here to learn something from me.  They bring with them a great deal of potential. Potential – each student possesses it. An autistic student is no different.  It takes a bit longer to find their strengths and their weaknesses, but I know the potential for learning is there, as is their potential to succeed and achieve their dreams.  Autism used to be such a rare syndrome that people would look at my son more as a curiosity than a young mind to be opened. Teachers had to get to know him a bit, try various methods of teaching and ask a hundred questions before they realized just how much potential this quiet young man carried with him.  As the numbers of autistic individuals increases in this country (now 1:70) many false stereotypes block the view of seeing their individual potential.  A TV drama or series has an episode with an autistic child and the day after it airs everyone has become an expert. They feel pity. They do not see potential. Autism is a spectrum disorder – which means each child may have some similarities, but each child is unique in their combination of abilities and disabilities. A spectrum disorder means that children do not look alike, act alike, or have the same emotional or mental capabilities. I wish everyone would not focus so much on the behaviors. Alas, I have resolved to have more patience; after all, it takes time to educate the masses.  But what I would really like others to see is the child’spotential. Every child can learn. Each can move forward, albeit, at a snails pace at times, but still the forward momentum is there. Potential is transformed into kinetic. When potential is expected you will see it.  When potential is not expected, no one bothers to look. The diagnosis of Matt’s autism was followed by “You should put him in a home”.  Why?  He has so much potential! I know Matt has dreams and aspirations just waiting to be realized.  I know. The doctors didn’t expect much forward momentum, so they never really looked for it.  I, on the other hand, expected to see it and watched for it - daily.  The first time he walked up steps alternating his feet. The first time his eyes caught mine.  The first time he wrote his name.  The first time he got an “A” in class. The first time he hit a ball. The first time he made a friend. Last spring, Matt took his first stroll by himself. This past summer, Matt constructed a platform bed for his room. All those tiny pieces of his potential revealed themselves over the years, gradually coalescing into the man he wants to be.  All those flecks of what could be became entire glistening jewels of achievements and obstacles surmounted.  Matt is living proof that there is much potential in an autistic child, just as there is with any child. Many people do not realize their dreams.  What happened to them along their life’s road that changed their drive toward their goal? What choices forced them to abandon their hopes of becoming more?  As I said earlier, I teach individuals of all ages and from all walks of life.  I know there is still potential in all of us that can be transformed into the realization of a dream and at any age.  The autistic child is no different. The route may be longer and the hills may be steeper but there is really nothing stopping the forward momentum once the potential turns kinetic. The first step is to acknowledge that the potential is there.

  • Memories of the Beach

    Matt has always loved the water and going to the beach was always a time of high excitement. One of our favorite destinations is the Outer Banks of North Carolina. For Matt it was especially wonderful as it has the Wright Brother’s Memorial, light houses and shopping too. Matt loves historical places and every time we go we are obliged to visit the location of the first-flight sand dunes, memorial and exhibits. Matt and I have even walked the entire path of the distance the plane flew on one winter trip. It was very cold. I still can feel how the winter air was biting our exposed faces and hands as we stepped along the path from marker to marker. It was important to him. I hate the cold but Matt wanted, no – needed - to do it and I just couldn’t say “no” to that pleading expression on his face. The memorial monument we have seen up close on sunny days and on cold, blustery days because it was expected of us. Matt took pictures of the artwork carved in the marble from every angle as well as the view from atop on each trip. We explored several light houses over the years; Ocracoke, Hatteras, Currituck, and Bodie Island. I have a fear of heights and walking the hundreds of open stairs to the top of each light house was always an adventure for me – a white knuckle adventure! Matt needed to go to the top, experience the history, visit the museums and always buy some small souvenir. It was a part of his routine. Of course, the water crashing on the beach was the absolute best place to be. Over the years we have walked miles on the beach, built massive sand castles and even driven the jeep on the sandy beach trails. We have jumped in the ocean when the water temperature was freezing (or at least it felt freezing in June) and lay on air rafts and watched dolphins swim right by us on hot summer days. Yep, I love the beach. The more secluded the better. Over the years we have gone further and further away from where the crowds congregate and more toward the long stretches of deserted sand. It doesn’t matter to Matt. He would be fine in any beach area because his focus is always on the water, the sky and the beauty of the beach. I know he is looking at the beauty of it. He points it out to Tom and I all the time. “Look at the sky” or “pelicans!” and even “Oh my!” are heard uttered on every trip. Has he always been this aware of his world? There were times when I wondered if he saw what I saw – but those days are long gone. In those days Matt was a young child, didn’t speak much and seemed very focused on the historical nature of the Outer Banks. As he grew into a teenager and his speech was more fluent I became aware that Matt saw everything I did and probably more. His artistic nature marveled at colors painted at sunset across the Pamlico Sound, the gracefulness of pelicans in flight, the spray of sparkles as the waves crashed on sand. He drew many pictures and took many more with his camera. Matt was changing drastically during these years. His body grew tall and his voice deepened. He understood more facial expressions and body language and was eager to learn more. He watched his siblings interact and joined in good-natured banter, and he began to take mental notes about the likes and dislike of others. By this I mean Matt actually started to care about my fear of heights, my love of pelicans and my love of beach-combing for shells. We have gone into the light houses many times and Matt knows that I have fears about height. Now as we walk up the stairs he sets the pace slow and reaches for my hand every few minutes to comfort me. It’s his way of protecting me. He has witnessed his daddy doing it a thousand times and understood that a strong hand can calm. When pelicans come into view gliding across the water and diving for dinner he excitedly points them out to me. He has seen his daddy show me a thousand times and has heard the excitement in my voice when I see those magnificent birds. He walks the beach with us, sometimes for hours without complaint, picking up shells. I know Matt has no real interest in the shells themselves, but he knows that I do have an interest. Matt picks up shell after shell, and not just any shell. He picks among the clusters only shells he has seen his daddy or I pick up. He shows them off with pride and slips them into a bag, just like we do. When we get home he offers his shells to us. They were for us all along. On one of our last beach trips we stayed in Buxton and walked the point daily. We arrived shortly after a storm had passed through and the waves were still quite large and loud. One evening Tom, Christopher and Matt were shell hunting where the high water mark left by high tide had deposited a multitude of small shells. I was at the water’s edge mesmerized by the waves in the moonlight. “Ok, ocean” I said out-loud, “toss me a really big shell!”. A moment later a large wave crashed near my feet and as it pulled back to the sea I spotted a rolling shell. I ran to pick it up before the next wave could take it back. It turned out to be a prize catch. A large 10 inch conch un-broken and beautifully colored was firmly clasped in my hands for the very first time. I excitedly called out to the gang and they came running. All were astounded by my find and all immediately scanned the beach near the wave break. The time flew as each of us ran for shells and repeatedly were chased back to beach by the waves. Matt was a big part of “the great shell chase” of 2008. He ran toward the water and scooped up a shell and excitedly ran back up the beach as the next waved chased him. He brought his magnificent find directly to me, handed it off and went back to look for more. As we walked back to the Jeep we noticed the waves had deposited the fluorescent algae as well. Each step we took left a briefly lighted footprint in the sand. It turned out to be my absolute favorite memory of the beach. The underlying story here is this. Matt blended in beautifully. He hunted shells, marveled at the glowing algae, commented on the beauty of the moonlight on the waves and joined in at every turn. It never even crossed my mind that Matt was autistic that day. He had learned over the years how to watch for facial expressions, body language and voice inflections and as he had matured his responses his actions had become second nature – not forced expressions or comments. Matt was just being . . . well, Matt. I know the fear a parent has upon hearing the diagnosis of autism. I know the hurdles parents face as their young child displays odd behaviors and speech patterns. I also know the joy of watching this same child grow and mature, leaving behind many of those traits. I have seen him watching and learning social cues and actively practice the various interactions the rest of us take for granted. I have witnessed the subtle changes in empathy, awareness and bonding. It is not that an autistic person can not feel these things – it just takes much longer for them to learn and they need role models to mimic. So take heart, parents of young autistic children, a wonderful blossoming is most likely in their future. The key is be the good role model for them to study and learn from.

  • In His Own Words

    Today’s blog is written by my son Matt – no, really!  I found one of his school projects and in reading it over thought, “Wow – this is Matt in his own words”.  I thought I would share this with you.  The descriptions of the pages are mine, but the words are Matt’s words.  These words tell more about how he felt about himself and the world around him better than I.  I left in the misspellings and put all the commas and dashes in just as he has them.  So here goes . . . In May of 2001 Matt was required to do a project – on himself.  The cover page is full of drawings of the things he liked most that year; the Titanic, Trains (of course), the Sears Tower (tallest building), the atomic bomb explosion (WWII history) and Johnny Bravo (a cartoon character). His table of contents lists the categories he had to cover; 1.      a photograph of himself – which was a picture of him and me at the river 2.      vital data 3.      My people 4.      My heritage 5.      Who am I? 6.      What I do 7.      My Favorite things 8.      Changing 9.      Steps to change 10.  Tomorrow. Vital Data Date of birth: I was born Jan 14, 1986. Age: My age is 15. General Description of Myself: Height: 5 foot 9 inches tall, weight: 160 pounds, hair – short + brown, eyes – bule, nice, gentle, - man, I’m pretty. Little feet, little muscles but very smart. My People The people that are important to me are my brothers, Chris + Jacob, and my sister, Sarah. My Mama and Papa are also important. My Ms. Austin is special and my best friend Kevin. Chris is graduating. Jacob loves magic cards. Kevin is in my class! Ms. Austin is sweet! Sarah will be driving! My daddy is nuts! My Mama is crazy! (these last 2 were meant to be funny – but hmmm, it could be true .. .) My Heritage This is a family tree that I helped him draw with all the members from both sides of our Brady-Bunch type marriage. Who am I? (Matt was suppose to describe how he saw his personality) Matthew is an 8th grader.  I don’t like homework, But I like high school and my friends. I am autistic.  I see and do things different than other people.  I work slower than most people.  I like to draw anything. Drawing helps me remember facts. I can’t look at people because I feel uncomfortable.  I don’t make friends easy.  Don’t like change + food texturies bother me.  Mama takes care of me at home, Ms.Austin helps me out at school. What I do (Areas where Matt feels good about who he is) I like to play sports like golf and soccer.I was at Special Olympics for 5 years. I won 13 blue ribbons. I did 3 science projects and won 2 grand prize, and 1 red ribbon. I like Titanic movie and work on a model the ship. I best thing is drawing. I like to draw cartoon characters.  My favorite place is the Field Museum of Natural History because I like dinosaurs especially T-rex, Brachiosaurus. My Favorite Things Music – I like to sing with my favorite songs. Motherless Child – by Eric Clapton I Don’t Want Miss a Thing – by Aerosmith Touch of Grey – Grateful Dead I’m Eighteen – Creed T.V. – these shows make me laugh Three Stooges – I like Curly the best, he’s funny + makes funny noises Cartoon Cartoon Fridays – Ed, Edd,n’ Eddie, Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Lab, Cow and Chicken, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Mike, Lu and Og and I am Weasel Movies – I like comedies because they make me laugh Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, Wayne’s World, Blues Brothers 2000, + Mousehunt. Sports: I like to watch all kinds of sports.  I want my teams to win. Baseball, Basketball, Golf, Hockey,Soccer, Bowling, and Tennis Hobbies: I like the sethings because they make me feel good. Things I like to do - Drawing, playing games, listen to the music, ride my scooter, watching TV, eat at McDonald’s Changing ( Matt was to describe how he would like to changewithin 5 years) I would like to graduate with good grades and lots of friends.  My goal is to go to Radford University. I need to work on homeworkand big labs. I want to college by myself. I want to learn to drive and be a man. I want to be an artist after my finish college. I want to be a cartoonist. I need a good job to make money to support myself + so my mom won’t worry about me. Steps for Change I need to feel comfortable with people so I can study at Radford University. I need to talk to people + make new friends. I need to more active in school +community.  I need to slow down + make eye contact. I need to learn to talk to people. Tomorrow . ( 20 yearslater and Matt is to write a letter to describe what his life is like) Dear Kevin, I graduated from high school with you. I’ll so graduate Radford University. I got my degree in Art + Science. I have a new art studio in Wytheville. I like drawing cartoons all day and getting pay. I sell my art in Chicago. I like to travel by car. It’s a pretty trip my family in Rockford, Ill. I’m doing so well and business. I plan to make my studio bigger. If you need help let me know. You’re my best friend.  Matt Well, that’s it. If you read between the lines (as I do) then you can see a self awareness emerging in Matt.  He was grappling with some very tough emotions.  He wanted so much to be like others his age.  Matt was 15 years old.  He felt different and alone.  He had dreams and set goals. As I read his words my heart ached all over again.  Oh, if I could have only made it just a bit easier for him . . . These words, Matt’s words, were written 9 years ago when Matt was still a child.  Things have changed quit a bit since then.  Matt did make good grades.  He has eye-contact now.  He speaks more easily with others and he likes meeting new people.  His choice in colleges has changed over the years from RU to Virginia Tech.   He knows how to drive a car (he just doesn’t drive).  He goes to college (it’s just part-time). So even if he hasn’t conquered all those goals – yet – we know he will one day. We are working on those dreams, but we move slow in the world of autism. Eventually, we’ll get him to where he needs to be.

  • Moving Forward

    Tom got a new assignment in Durham – close to home.  As part of his job package he gets a fancy-dancy apartment.  Matt was ready for the new adventure and happily packed for his new destination. After a week, Tom and Matt returned home for the weekend and all was normal again – but just for the weekend.  They left again and this time I returned with them for a short vacation between semesters. I got the grand tour of their new bachelor pad.  No, Tom is not the bachelor - Matt is.  The apartment had its own washer-dryer,dishwasher, internet, cable, and furnished with all new pieces; couch, chair, table, bed, dresser and even linens.  It had a weight room, 2 pools and 2 tennis courts. For all its amenities it lacked a touch of home.  So, after Tom left for work Matt and I decorated.  We hung pictures, organized closets and moved the furniture.  Matt put in the wall hangers, decided which pictures to hang where and organized all his stuff.  I showed him how to use the dishwasher and gave him this chore.  We all explored the apartment complex and the shopping district and Matt was excited to find all his regular hangouts. Now comes the hard part – giving him independence. I’m back home in Virginia,Tom is back to work and Matt is the king of his new domain.  He is learning how to run the washer and dryer so he can do his own laundry.  He is using the phone everyday to call his mother (and I anxiously await his calls each afternoon).  But now it is time tomove forward.  Matt will be going for walks – by himself.  His first practice is tomorrow afternoon.  Tom will be giving Matt his own key and pass card. He’ll walk alone on a path around the apartments and he’ll go to the weight room using his pass card.  All the while Tom will be watching – from a discrete distance.  Matt has been asked to call me when he leaves and call me upon his return.  Our instructions were fairly simple: take your cell phone, key, pass card and MP3 player and enjoy your walk.  For added safety I had Tom write a note for Matt to carry in his pocket.  The note is pretty straight-forward – Name, address, emergency call numbers and that Matt is autistic. It’s a hard thing to do – letting go.  For parents of an autistic child, or any handicapped child for that matter, it is especially difficult.  You have to fight with yourself.  Part of me says, “Protect him at any cost” and another part shouts back, “What kind of life is that?” The argument continues between the warring factions of my brain, “He could get hurt, he could get lost, he could run into unscrupulous people” is countered with “He’s a man and needs to find his place. Give him some credit for his intelligence – he won’t get lost. Everyone risks the unknown – let go and give him a chance”.  It’s very difficult to be a parent of an autistic son as the mind battles are almost constant. But I listen to my son. I listen to his dreams and his desires for independence and I want him to always feel supported and loved.  Matt really is a man – not a child.  We want him to one day be on his own to enjoy life as he sees fit.   So, we practice.  We practice chores, we practice phone calls,we practice eating habits and personal hygiene and now we are about to embarkon practicing the freedom of movement. Tom will work the day after Matt’s first secured practice-walk.  Matt will call me – excitedly, I’msure – as he embarks on his first unaccompanied walk and activity.  He will know real freedom and he will enjoy himself tremendously.  He’ll explore the area and visit the weight-room.  He’ll take his time.  And when he returns back to the apartment he will call me and tell me all about his wonderful new daily activity – and I will fight back tears of joy as I listen to his voice - his deep grown-up voice. Most of you know the old saying Life Is What You Make It.  We are trying, struggling, fighting, and pushing ourselves to make Matt’s life as he would want it – to be totally independent. Each step may seem so small and yet each is a leap of faith. It would be much easier to just take care of him – to treat him as a child.  Matt’s autism makes him appear as a child in my mind - but that’s just because he is my child. I know that Matt is all grown-up.  He looks like a man.  He wants to feel like a man.  And so I push myself to let go – slowly.  Practice not only gives Matt self confidence and a safety net, it gives me the time I need to adjust to the simple fact that Matt needs his freedom. In each precarious step along the way, we are all finding the strength to keep moving forward.

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