Full-Length Feature: Autism

Standing at 5’10, Alex is a stocky eighteen-year-old with light brown hair; he is wearing a “Bubba Burgers” T-shirt that is both backwards and inside out. The little white tag usually hidden from sight is resting at the front of his neck and is being nibbled on by the black cat he is holding against his chest. He is intently watching the closing credits of a movie, standing poised and ready near the remote in case anyone were to mistakenly think the movie was over. He usually watches the credits twice to hear the song that plays at the end, while simultaneously listening to a radio blaring in another part of the house. His mother, Virginia Dyke, is used to this routine and calmly sips at her tea while Alex paces nervously between the radio and the television.

They didn’t find out anything was wrong with Alex until 1989 after a battery of tests conducted at the Hawthorn Center in Northville. After several emotionally draining days, Virginia was called into the psychiatrist’s office and told that Alex met the criteria for Autism, a condition that she later heard referred to as the “mother killer.” Despite the obvious signs – like the inability to speak in complete sentences and his apparent deafness when being spoken to, Alex’s family did not believe the diagnosis.

“We thought he was normal,” Virginia remembers. He was three years old.

The number of children being diagnosed with Autism is on the rise. 15 years ago this developmental disorder only affected 1 in 10,000 children, the majority being boys. Today, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism will affect 1 out of every 150 births and the number is rising annually by 17 percent. With the number of cases increasing at such a drastic rate, cost of care, treatment options, and proper educational programs are a very serious concern for families raising Autistic children.

For Virginia, treatment and education were the priorities. Originally from Dearborn, Michigan, the Dykes moved to Washtenaw County in 1994 so Alex could be closer to the University of Michigan Medical Center. The move also allowed Alex to attend Dexter schools, which offered a special education inclusion program.

Inclusion is designed to incorporate children with special needs into a normal classroom setting and it worked beautifully for Alex until he was in sixth grade. But the mixture of puberty and an uncooperative teacher triggered a difficult time in his educational career, and a period of trial and exhaustion for Virginia and her husband Bill. It was a difficult decision, but they determined that Alex would go to an entirely special education classroom at Scarlet Middle School in Ann Arbor. Anthony Brad was in his class.

When he was a toddler, Anthony’s mother Lynn noticed that Anthony acted differently than her other two children. He didn’t just play or pretend.

“He would get obsessed with something,” says Lynn. “He lined everything up, all of his matchbox cars, all of his toys, always in a row.”

She suspected Autism but it was difficult getting a doctor to agree to the tests. When her suspicions were confirmed, she was devastated.

“I spent years feeling guilty and blaming myself. I felt like it was my fault, my genetics or something I did while I was pregnant,” says Lynn. “It was going to be cradle to grave with him. We couldn’t even guess what his life was going to be like, but we knew it was going to be hard.” Despite difficult times over the years, they have learned to adapt to Anthony’s disorder. He is now eighteen and enjoys a lifestyle much like other teenagers. He goes to school, watches television (he especially enjoys the episode of COPS when a large snake is found underneath a house); and even though Anthony has difficulty with communication and social interaction, his interests and sense of humor are typical of any young man.

“He has started to notice girls… and he refers to butts as fart slicers,” Lynn says with a laugh. The Brays’ lifestyle, although interesting and rewarding, is not without a tremendous amount of stress. Like many mothers with Autistic children, Lynn has become an expert on Autism by reading every book, attending conferences, and saving magazine articles.

“The more you know, the more ammunition you have to help your child,” says Lynn.

When Anthony was younger, Lynn tried every miracle “cure” and treatment she could find. Now she realizes that the best thing to do is to stick with what works – when possible. After years of individual education plans (IEP), visits to the Psychiatrist, and numerous special education classrooms, Anthony has been happily attending Huron High School. But that is about to change.

At age 18 many Autistic people have to switch from the schools and classrooms they are used to, in order to attend an unfamiliar adult program. Although they currently attend different high schools and will be part of different adult programs, both Alex and Anthony will be making this transition in the fall. This drastic change of schedule and environment could result in behavioral problems for both boys, and their mothers are nervous.

“Transitions are always hard,” Virginia says. Lynn agrees.

“Getting used to a new schedule and classroom is going to be hard for Anthony,” says Lynn. The adult education program will no longer focus on academics, but will teach the boys how to be more independent and teach them basic skills they can apply to a job (an area that Anthony will enjoy because he loves to sweep). The boys will attend an adult program until they are in their mid-twenties. However, Virginia and Lynn can’t help but wonder, what comes next?

“I always think about what will happen after the seven years, what will we do?” Lynn laments. Virginia also has concerns.

“We worry about his care in the future, him finding a job and whether he will ever be able to live on his own,” says Virginia.

For now, they have to focus on the present. Alex and Anthony’s senior year are coming to a close and the boys are looking forward to summer. In order to keep his routine the same and to give the family a break, Lynn has enrolled Anthony in a summer program. Alex, however, will be at home.

The final credit has left the TV screen (for the second time) and Alex is already heading for the bathroom to slip on his swim trunks. When asked how he felt about going back to school, he yells out an enthusiastic “NO!” As he barrels into the pool, the splash briefly muffles the sound of the radio blaring in the background.

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