My first exposure to autism

The introduction to autism for most people comes in their pediatrician’s office when they hear those dreaded words. My first experience was a bit different.

As seniors (Class of ’82) at St. Louis University High School, a couple of friends and I were just starting on a three week community service project at the Judevine Center for Autism. Mike, Rich, and I walked through the doors, not really knowing what to expect. We stopped a member of the staff as she walked by so that we could introduce ourselves and find out where we should go. As we were talking a muscular young man, probably 14 or 15 years old, walked towards us wth a smile, apparently happy and in a good mood.

He then punched the woman we were talking with as hard as he could, right in the middle of her back, and turned and walked away.

“?!?” was the look on our faces as we looked around at each other. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” In this case, first impressions were not lasting impressions. It was an incredible experience.

Over the next three weeks we learned a great deal about autism, how it affects kids, and the people who dedicate themselves to helping these kids. The Center served (still does, actually) the entire PDD/Autism spectrum, from the low-end to the high-end. [I hesitate to use those descriptors after reading Form and Functioning: For Autistics, There’s No Truth in Advertising, but it is the best I could come up with for now.]

At first glance, some of the kids just looked like “normal” kids. After a little observation, though, it became obvious that these weren’t your typical kids. Not that this was bad. Once we got to know the kids, and they got to know us, most of them very quickly became just “different.” My experiences in middle and high school had prepared me quite well for “different.” [As a youngster I was labeled as “gifted” and placed in a school for “gifted” kids. Very few “normal” role models there! ;-]

But some of the kids were more than just different. These were the severely autistic kids. One stands out in my mind. He was 17 at the time. He had poor gross motor skills and non-existent fine motor skills. He could not talk, though he had a range of grunts and moans that could express a wide range of emotions, from anger and frustration to joy. (At least, this is how I interpreted them.) And occassionally, very occassionally, you could get some true interaction. Left on his own, this boy would bite himself, would thrash about, would bang his head so hard you could almost feel the walls shake.

The experience served me well 12 years later when I finally did hear those words from a pediatrician. We had known something was up, but hadn’t quite gotten to the point of saying the “A” word out loud. I know I was thinking it. But I was also thinking, “It could be worse. A lot worse.”