In case you aren’t already in the know, April 2nd marked the seventh annual World Autism Awareness Day. These days I can hardly go anywhere without meeting someone with a connection to the autism world.
This happens especially when my son Eric is wearing one of his funny autism awareness t-shirts.
One says, ‘FREEZE: I have autism and I’m not afraid to use it!’ So in the spirit of World Autism Awareness Day, allow me to introduce my son, Eric.
On the usual autism scale of mild-moderate-severe, he is about in the middle of the severe end. Eric has classic autism, and all the symptoms that go with it. As the media often focuses on younger children with autism, I thought it might be interesting to give you a peek into the life of a teenager with autism, right here in Lacombe.
He speaks in short, hesitant sentences. If you ask him a question it takes him longer than usual to process an answer and get the words out, so we have learned to wait while he does that.
Due to sensory issues he can’t stand being touched for the most part. We call them ‘air fives’ and ‘air shakes’, even ‘air hugs’, which are high-fives, handshakes and hugs that don’t make contact with the other person.
You can’t miss him as he walks down the street. He exhibits lots of motions with his hands and arms, and walks with funny gaits. This is all referred to as ‘stimming’, which helps him regulate the sensory input that is always barraging him from the everyday world. Often he will go back and walk around a person or object he walked around the ‘wrong’ side of, or touch things in patterns until his brain tells him he’s done it right and he can now move on.
He often sounds like he’s laughing and talking to himself. It’s called ‘scripting’. He’s re-enacting his favourite DVDs, movies, or video games.
Eric has been going to school at Lacombe Composite High School, taking the LAWS program (Life, Academic and Work Skills). This program is one that I truly appreciate. Each student’s needs are assessed, and then they take part in the LAWS program to the degree dictated by their needs.
Otherwise, when it makes sense, many of these students take part in regular high school classes. Over his years at Lacombe Comp. Eric has (with some modifications by the teachers) taken ART 10, 11, and 12, Info Processing, parts of the design study program, worked in the greenhouse and school library, and more. The school’s Inclusion Coach, Jeannie Miller, has been a wonderful participant in Eric’s integration into school programs and tasks. Eric, who is now 17, is doing work experience four afternoons each week, accompanied by his educational assistant Tina Smith.
On Monday and Wednesday afternoons he works for the City, in the IT department. There he cuts drawings and maps from bound pads, loads them in the plotter, uses the touch pad to scan the document and then transfers and saves the file on a laptop.
When I ask her, IT manager Diane Piche insists Eric’s work has ‘real world’ value, and they are very happy with the amount of work he gets done.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons Eric works at Lacombe County. He performs a variety of duties there, such as filing, helping in the courtyard garden, organizing their office supplies, inventory, laminating, scanning, helping out in the mail room, and more.
Eric’s first work experience opportunity was in 2013 at Weidner Motors in Lacombe.
So look around the stores and streets of Lacombe and surrounding area, even Red Deer sometimes, for a 6’ tall buzz cut boy that may be laughing and flailing his arms and dancing down the street, or shuffling along and talking to himself in a store.
And just maybe on a good day, if you catch his attention by saying, “Hi Eric”, you might be rewarded with a few words, a smile, and a brief moment of eye contact, just for you.
Kitty Parlby is an educational assistant at J.S. McCormick Elementary School in Lacombe in the special needs pre-kindergarten classes.