Autism

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

“English, math, chemistry…” I was panicked over all the work I needed to finish, which had become increasingly difficult after doubling my hours at the barn. Overwhelmed, I just wanted to get home. Then, after I finally mastered my barrel pattern, my trainer, Denise, came and asked if I would volunteer for a program involving autistic children. She said most others were frightened away, but she had confidence in me. My cousin Nicholas had just been diagnosed with autism, so I felt some sort of obligation mixed with unease. Though it would have been easier to claim I was too busy, I relented. On the first day, eighteen-year-old Michael threw his enormous frame on the ground, injuring himself and the horse he was riding. I felt vulnerable around these children, when I was supposed to feel helpful. I looked forward to finishing the program. Ironically, however, I began to find myself at the barn daily. In October, two brothers, Luke and Adam, joined the program. When we met, Luke stared blankly. I bent and introduced myself. He gazed at me but returned only indecipherable noises. Instead of sensing accomplishment for reaching out, I felt what must have been his horror. Thoughts and words wanted to emerge, but he lacked the capacity to communicate them — or at least communicate “normally”. I imagined the terror of having something to say but lacking the capacity to do so.I did not feel I knew much about autism, but I quickly learned the importance of routine. One day, I watched Luke cling to his mother’s arm. An instructor grabbed his hand. Luke began screaming and crying. I wanted to make the instructor stop, to take Luke and comfort him. Luke felt me near and wrapped his arms around me. We walked off together. For the next month, our new routine consisted of my holding Luke on every trail. I would talk. Luke would respond with gurgling and humming. Occasionally, I made out words, but they did not translate into much. Because our director had repeatedly told us to “make sure they hold the reigns,” I kept placing them in Luke’s hands, only for him to drop them. One day, though, he gripped the reigns and never let go. Before our next session, I spotted Luke petting a horse. He began singing “C is for cookie…that’s good enough for me.” I smiled and starting singing with him. He laughed, the first such sound I heard from him in our months together. He repeated that line from Sesame Street continuously for the hours we spent together. At the end of our session, we hugged. The next week, Luke’s mother asked bewilderedly about the previous session. For the first time, Luke had not fought her about getting dressed or going in the car. I described our last meeting, then knelt down and asked Luke about his day. He responded “C is for cookie!” As we walked off together, I realized, autistic or not, we all are speaking the same language. Some people just use different words.

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