Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Big Dose of Diversity

by Michele Hammons

Michelle Hammons’ son, Jacob, has autism. A stay at home mom and active volunteer at the Autism Treatment Center, Michelle and her husband Dan have worked hard to help Jacob be all he can just as they do with his neurotypical older brother Daniel.

There are many activities that my autistic son, Jacob and I enjoy doing together. One of our favorites is going to restaurants to sample various different cuisines. It is a characteristic that Jacob and I both share. We both love to cook and eat good food. Especially food that is different than what we normally eat. We love things that are different, but we’ll get to that later.

A few years ago, we were meeting some friends for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. We were the first to arrive and were immediately seated at our table. While we were waiting on our drinks, Jacob decided he was tired of waiting. He threw himself on the floor and started screaming. The once busy and loud restaurant immediately became quiet and you could have heard a pin drop. I immediately started formulating my plan of escape, of course, and vowed never to return in case they remembered us.

First of all, how was I going to hoist my 85-pound child off the floor and carry all of our belongings to the car? I decided that other than Jacob, all that I really needed to grab was my purse. My friends could pick up the rest of my belongings when they arrived.

I proceeded to lift my screaming kiddo off the floor and make a quick exit. Everything was happening so quickly that it wasn’t until then that I took a look around, I noticed how much of a spectacle we had become. Some people were laughing and pointing at us, some were looking at me with that “you need to take better control of your kid look”, some truly looked sad, but one person offered to help. She grabbed all of the things I had carried in without question and walked with us to the car.

I could barely talk and was able to hold my emotions in until I reached the car. Jacob was still screaming and tears that I fought back started to roll down my face as I attempted to buckle in my unhappy child. After getting him settled, I walked around the car to find this kind-hearted stranger patiently waiting for me with all of my stuff in hand. She explained to me that she worked with children with autism and knew Jacob was special. I thanked her, she gave me a hug, and we went our separate ways. In my haste, however, I never even learned her name. She was my angel that day and I am forever grateful for her help.

The long ride home gave me time to think about everything that had taken place that day. Dealing with autism is difficult, especially when others around do not show compassion or understanding. My feelings were so hurt for my child. At the time, he had limited ability to communicate. I can’t imagine what he must have been feeling that day. I was sad for the patrons of the restaurant who had to witness the meltdown. Though we celebrate diversity in or communities, we don’t always demonstrate understanding. But most of all, I was heartbroken thinking about the thousands of families that have the same experiences every day.

The dictionary defines diversity as the fact or quality of being different. To me, diversity is beautiful. It is that quality that makes each of us special. I can’t imagine how boring our lives would be without diversity. I pray for a cure for autism, but until that day happens I will continue to work with my beautiful little boy that just happens to be touched with a big dose of diversity.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meet Meg.

Meg O’Connell is not your typical 33-year old. She is an accomplished competitor, having won several State championships in individual track events and team sports in soccer and basketball. She is also a consummate Elvis Presley fan, so much that an Elvis impersonator has performed at her birthday every year for the last ten years. She has the brightest smile in the room and is often the first to greet you with a heart-melting smile. Also, Meg is an adult with autism.

Meg was diagnosed with special needs when she was six months old. As a baby, she had 
severe crying spells and experienced seizures that left her permanently mentally challenged. As she got older, behavioral issues and a lack of social skills presented challenges for her parents. Acting out, hitting, spitting, and swearing like a sailor caused disruptions in her school and made it difficult for her parents to maintain safe control over her. Last, her independence was minimal and she needed constant monitoring for normal hygiene tasks, bathing, brushing teeth, etc. 

Then, in 2003, the unthinkable occurred. Her mother suffered a fatal car accident. Soon after, Meg entered the Residential and Adult Services Programs at the Autism Treatment Center.

Not only had Meg’s behavioral challenges worsened, eating issues had caused her weight to balloon to 260 pounds. Meg soon found companions her age and was placed in a group home with women who shared some of the same interests. ATC changed her medications, improved her diet, and got Meg on an exercise program. With time, patience, and a lot of individualized therapy, Meg’s behavioral issues decreased. She now weighs 135 pounds and counts the other adults in her group home as her closest friends.

Meg’s parents, Jeanie and Bill O’Connell had this to say. “ATC was truly a God send. Today, Meggy is well adjusted, performs normal functions such as laundry, cleaning, personal hygiene, and functioning in the work place. We are very grateful for ATC.”

This year, Meg turns 35. She leads a happy and productive life. She is surrounded by plenty of friends and enjoys volunteering at World of Goods, a local non-profit organization. We are blessed that Meg and her family found the Autism Treatment Center.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Adults with Autism

by Anna Hundley, ATC Executive Director

Did you know that in Texas there are over 200,000 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?  You may ask, what are those 200,000 adults doing every day?  Well, we know that less than 10,000 of those adults are in programs, but the other 190,000 may not be receiving services of any kind.  Many are on waiting lists at the state and county level for services.  Some of those people have been on waiting lists for well over 10 years!  We expect that most of the 190,000 are sitting at home watching TV or playing video games.  

As these adults age, so do their parents.  At ATC we serve 75 adults, ages 22-67.  Several are in their 40s, some in their 50s and 60s.  One or both parents of the older adults at ATC have passed away.  One of the scariest concerns of parents with adults with autism is what is going to happen to my son or daughter when I pass away.

In 2001 I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Ruth Sullivan and hear her discuss the crisis in adult services.  She had the foresight to form the National Association of Residential Providers for Adults with Autism (NARPAA) with the mission to assure the availability of residential services and other supports for adults with autism throughout their lives.  I was elected to serve as the President of that organization from 2001-2011.  What I learned and continue to learn every day is that the crisis is not just in Texas, but all over the United States and the world.

It is estimated that over 2,000 students with ASD graduate from high schools in Texas each year.  The number of adults with autism is not going to get smaller; it is only going to get larger.  We have a crisis in Texas as well as the rest of the country, and we must deal with the problem sooner rather than later.

How can you help change the situation for adults with autism in your community?  Support a local autism program, like Autism Treatment Center, to help them continue and expand services.  Tell others.  Spread the word to create awareness about the critical needs for these services.  Leave a comment and let us know your ideas to help.

Anna Hundley, ATC Executive Director, joined Autism Treatment Center in 1982.  Ms. Hundley is recognized nationally and internationally for nonprofit management and leadership skills.  She is the past President of National Association of Residential Providers of Adults with Autism (NARPAA); Serves on State independent Living Council appointed by Governor Perrymember of National ASA Services TASK Force; member of 32nd IRI, US Dept of Education; Vice Chair of Texas Council on Autism & Pervasive Development Disorders, National Advisory Task Force, SEDL

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Positive Side of Asperger’s Syndrome

by Ken Kellam

When I was young, teachers (and peers) realized I could do math in my head. In third grade, I got my multiplication tables down before anyone else. When I started a new school in eighth grade, my classmates discovered I could multiply two digit numbers times other two digit numbers without a calculator. My senior year of high school, I entered a “number sense” competition and placed 2nd out of 15. Right before I started college, I tested out of math and hence, never had to take it after high school. Years later, I tracked down an old co-worker who had a successful career in advertising. He wrote back and told me he had recently been sitting in a business meeting with facts and figures flying around and thought about how nice it would be to have my math ability. To this day, if my parents or brother have a mathematical dilemma, I’m the “go-to” guy.

I think in terms of pictures and images, not words, and as such, when someone gives me a math problem I can see the numbers and come up with a quick calculation. I've also taught myself little tricks to use as shortcuts when calculating. All of this begs the question: Does this ability come in spite of Asperger's Syndrome or because of it? Let’s just say if I were “neuro-typical,” I doubt I would be able to do any of this. Mainly, I would think like a neuro-typical, and as such, I probably would have to use a calculator more than I do now.

The point is, there are definite things about Asperger’s that are positive. In fact, my former co-worker once told me that if I’d been born in another time I might have been a hot commodity in the employment market, but that my talent was rendered obsolete by calculators. If you have an “Aspie” as a friend or relative, encourage him to find out what his strengths are and to maximize those strengths to their full potential. Because of the way his brain is wired, he may sometimes struggle with things others take for granted, but others will also struggle with things he takes for granted. An encouraging “push” might be all it takes to get the Aspie started on the road to self-discovery.

Ken Kellam III was diagnosed with Asperger's in his late 30's. He recently celebrated his 10th anniversary at ATC, where he works as Administrative Assistant to Dr. Carolyn Garver. He has been married for two years, and his wife also works at ATC as a Teaching Assistant.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Place for Bobby

Julia & Bobby
by Julia Chalker

When Bobby was a young boy, the public schools didn't have special programming for autism and there were virtually no programs around that worked with these children. My mom traveled to Denton daily, sharing carpooling duties with other families to attend the Center for Behavioral Studies at what was then North Texas State University. There were no programs in the Dallas area. 

Autism Treatment Center was founded in 1976, and Bobby has been treated there since the beginning. For years the program was housed in a church in Richardson. The school opened their first residential group home within the next few years. ATC’s founders, administrators, teachers, and other staff members helped Bobby grow from a nonverbal, self-abusive boy, to someone who was able to express his needs, follow simple commands, and perform basic academic tasks. 

When Bobby hit adolescence and began to exhibit more volatile and aggressive behavior, ATC provided housing in their group homes, beginning with weekend respite, for Bobby. My mother was a single mom and there were no respite services available at that time, so ATC was a godsend to my family. When Bobby grew older, they helped him develop his vocational skills and supported him in various employment situations.  ATC was a pioneer in services for individuals with autism. 

I believe that Bobby is a part of ATC’s history, having been there as long as he has through childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and now approaching middle age (can that be true?!?). Remarkably, of the group of original children treated at ATC, all but one are still in the program, and the other individual has passed away. 

My family is very grateful to Autism Treatment Center for the years of care they have provided Bobby and all the others treated there. Bobby’s life, as well as the life of my family, could have been much different if they had not been there for us.  Bobby has had many caring and dedicated teachers and group home parents that have provided for his needs and helped him to be as independent as he can be and live a quality life.

Waiting lists today for services like Bobby receives can be 10-15 years long and parents are advised to get on waiting lists for services upon receiving a diagnosis. As a Transition Specialist who regularly tells parents about these waiting lists, there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful that Bobby is in the situation he is in. 

P.S.  Here's a list I wrote on an airplane on the way home from vacation with Bobby a few summers ago. Spending 24 hours a day with him for a week straight made it easy to reflect .  I just felt like putting it in writing.

10 Great Things About Bobby

10. His great taste in music and the joy he gets from listening to it.
9.   The way he winks and smiles at me periodically (always makes me smile).
8.   That he has no filter and sometimes says things everyone else wants to say ("Be quiet Phoebe").
7.   How his being kind of OCD helps me remember things I might otherwise forget.
6.   How he says "I am happy" and "I love you Julie" and truly means it.
5.   How he can't get my children's names right after 15 years (although he remembers lots of other weird random things from the ancient past), but that is okay.
4.   How clean and neat he is (my kids especially like it if he happens to pick up after them!).
3.   The silly weird things he says (I want to go to John Lennon's house, Susan Tallmadge has two little eyes, Bobby does not want to ride horse again).
2.   He is such a hard worker and has been so successful at his job at the hospital.
1.   That he practically slams the door in my face when I take him to his house because he is ready to get back into his routine/life!