by Mary McClellan, Executive Director Autism Pensacola
One morning last week, I went into the office feeling a bit off, but as I stood there with my satchel over my shoulder talking with our program director, in came the most adorable little boy. He walked up to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Gabriel. And you are?” He then proceeded to share with me his disdain for school and extensive knowledge of trains. (Did you know there are over 100 different types of trains? Me either.) I was absolutely mesmerized by the innocence, passion, and confidence all rolled into this adorable little human standing in front of me. After he finished educating me about the train industry, he looked at me and said, “I really love trains. But you know what I love even more than trains?” And he pointed a finger at me and said, “You!” With one single word, he stole my heart and made my day.
Gabriel is a perfect example of a phrase that is used quite often in the world of autism. “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” That’s because it is as unique as the individual who is affected by it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all disorder, and neither are the approaches used to treat it. One child may be nonverbal and prone to eloping (a behavior referring to walking or running off without warning). Another may have ultra-sensitivity to lights or sounds and engage in calming themselves by stimming (another behavior in which a person uses repetitive actions like rocking or flailing their hands). In every single case of ASD, the extent of the behaviors can range from mild to severe. They also tend to fluctuate as a child grows up and reaches adulthood. You just never know how autism will show itself.
That’s why it’s so important to recognize and diagnose the disorder in children as young as possible. The earlier the intervention begins, the more of an impact it will have in the long run. Consistent speech, behavioral, occupational, and vocational therapies over a long period of time will offer the best chance for a future of independent living, employment opportunities, continuing education, and general inclusion in the community around them.
At Autism Pensacola, we offer a guiding hand through the maze of resources available to those in our community. One parent I was talking with told me these words that were spoken to her by a member of API’s staff on the day of her young son’s diagnosis. “You will never be alone again” And she wasn’t. She now works on the API staff and gives the same reassurance she received all those years ago to frantic parents who don’t know where to begin.
One way in which API is helping bring awareness and acceptance of individuals with ASD is through a new pilot project, Sensory Street. The interior of the Downtown Museum of Commerce will be lined with interactive exhibits that are specific to behaviors associated with ASD. They are designed to enlighten visitors to hurdles people with autism face. The overall purpose of Sensory Street is to help visitors understand autism’s daily challenges and promote an atmosphere of inclusivity.
Embracing those who are affected by autism helps not only the individual but also the world around them. I’ll never forget how I felt when Gabriel was leaving our office and
turned to say, “Will I be seeing you again?” I assured him he would, and he walked out the door to brighten someone else’s day. We are blessed by the Gabriels of the world. Let’s make sure they feel blessed by us as well.
STORY FOLLOW-UP: I did indeed see Gabriel again just a few weeks after he entered my life. He came to Sensory Street with other children who were attending our annual Camp for Kids. When he got off the bus, I threw my hands in the air and shouted, “Gabriel!!” He gave me the skeptical once-over and said, “How do you know my name?” I was crushed, of course, and realized in that instance that he was preparing for a lifetime of breaking hearts, mine being the first of many.