Zach Becenti used to have trouble talking with his teachers and classmates. The teen from Harbor Springs, Mich., has autism, which makes social situations difficult for him. But his extraordinary artistic talent helped break down those walls.

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When students and teachers began noticing Becenti’s amazing portraits, the young man started gaining confidence and opening up. Now, he interacts with people around him, so much so that he gives an interview in the UpNorthLive video below. Watch to see how far he’s come — and also to get a glimpse at his current concept art project, where he imagines disasters (i.e. the Titanic, 9/11) as if they never happened.

Sure, you could describe the way his mind works as “different.” But we prefer, “brilliant.”


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Madeline Long is a 10 year old girl on the autism spectrum. She has become a minor star among people who watch her weekly “Happy Monday” videos, as these fans have been taken in by the sweet charisma that she has for life. Maddie greets people at the start of the week with the phrase, “Happy Monday.” I’m sure most of you are wondering, And what is so great about the start of the week? The answer is pretty simple. When you are someone who craves a schedule as much as Maddie does, you are confused by the lack of structure that a weekend brings and love nothing more than going back to the regimented life that school provides.

How would I describe Maddie? She’s manic in her energy levels. Her attention span is very limited. Because of these things her interests in life are active, be it basketball, swimming or pretend play. Those of you that think most kids on the spectrum are like zombies sitting in front of the TV — well spend a day with Maddie and that notion of yours will disappear. Here’s another thing that might surprise you. She’s very much a people person, as long as they are adult people who facilitate helping her do the things she wants to do. She rarely connects with peers because despite her sharing the same chronological age, her developmental age is more like a 4-year-old, so her play reflects that.

I give you this background about Maddie so you can understand how rare it is for her to display the calm nature she offers up in the video below. I have seen Maddie be this way very few times, and it’s always been when she is around another person with a developmental delay that is more global in nature than her own. She has no “Rain Man” savant-like gifts, but Maddie does have an instinct to go inside herself and be the calm vessel that the person she is with needs at that point. As much as I would like to have someone to help me beat the Vegas house at blackjack, I wouldn’t trade it for the sensitive trait my girl has in dealing with people with bigger challenges than she even faces.

The other person in this video is 11-year-old Matthew. Besides being on the spectrum, Matthew was born with tuberous sclerosis. The very non-medical description is that he has non-malignant tumors that can pop up all over. When he was in-utero he had one of these tumors in his heart. He has battled way more than what you and I have had to do to survive in life. Don’t be fooled by his sweet smile, this little guy is 100 percent American tough guy.  Matthew would have the right to call Chuck Norris a wuss.

Maddie and Matthew met through Special Olympics basketball. On the court Maddie is like a lot of NBA players, as her focus wavers when she is on defense, but she had a successful season as she got through the noise and distractions that in the past often had her emotionally unable to stay on the hardwood. Basketball was newer to Matthew and he struggled most of the year to even take his hands off his ears. The whole thing often just seemed too much for him, but that is one of many of the great parts about the Special Olympics. No judgments. I’m not a big fan of cliches, but I do truly believe that so much of life is just showing up and my man Matthew did, despite how tough it often was for him.

At the end of the season, Matthew’s wonderful parents invited the families of the teams to a celebration party at their house. When you have a child on the spectrum you don’t get invited to too many parties and you aren’t very likely to attend anyway, as the atmosphere isn’t generally conducive for the challenges that are always at hand. This was a different type of party, as the vibe was perfect for all the kids. One player was absent, though — Matthew. He was holed up in his room the whole time. At this point I should mention that the one teammate that I had noticed during practice and games who Matthew would take his hands off his ears for was Maddie. He had even hugged her a couple of times. Knowing this I mentioned to Maddie that we should go into Matthew’s room and see if we could get him to join the rest of us at the party. The video below is what happened when we did this.


This post originally appeared on It’s An Autism Thing.


It takes a lot of guts to stand up to bullies. It takes even more guts to stand up to your entire class. In the video below, Jake, a young man with autism, does just that.

“I don’t think you guys see me for me,” Jake says. “I want you guys to see me for me and really try to be my friend.”

The clip was filmed for The BULLY Project, a social anti-bullying campaign inspired by the 2011 documentary, “BULLY.” Since the movie aired, Jake, who’s now a junior in high school, told Upworthy that social life has improved for him — he’s even joined his high school football team.

He told Upworthy:

For other kids with autism, if you’re getting bullied, try and tell them to stop and not give a reaction — if that doesn’t work, go to an adult. It might seem hard cause we can’t handle stress as well as other kids, but you will get through it and you’ll be awesome — actually you already are!

Watch Jake stand up to his bullies:



On the day Rosie Barnes’ 3-year-old son, Stanley, was diagnosed with autism, the mother of two sat in her living room with the lights off. In front of her, leaflets from the doctor’s office spewed information about the developmental disorder. Barnes began to weep as she read through statistics, facts and definitions. She couldn’t find comfort in what felt like pages of jargon-filled instructions. Of course, she wanted to learn about autism, but she wanted to go deeper than that. She wanted to understand what her child was feeling.

“I’ve always felt that for me, text books weren’t necessarily a good starting place… I could never actually find [Stanley] in the textbooks and I was left feeling confused and anxious,” Barnes, 48, told The Mighty in an email.

Barnes, a London-based photographer, had been composing pictures of Stanley since he was born; she was fascinated by her son’s point of view. But after his diagnosis, she realized she had actually been photographing autism’s point of view.

“Stanley was living in a world far more complex than I could ever imagine,” Barnes told The Mighty. She wanted to document that. Today, Stanley is 17 years old, and Barnes still captures his life in a photo book called, “Understanding Stanley,” where pictures are accompanied by statements from adults on the autism spectrum or from those who support individuals with autism.

Understanding Stanley swing

“Stanley needs a very clearly defined framework and fixed personal routines to keep him calm and happy.”
— Rosie Barnes

Understanding Stanley mural

 He sat there for a very long time, just staring at this kind of madness.”
— Rosie Barnes

Barnes wants her photographs to reach people at an emotional level, a far more important place to start, she says, when trying to understand autism.

“I want to make the invisible visible,” she told The Mighty, “and I suppose I want people to feel, not just to think.”

“It feels like I’m trapped in a world where everyone has their backs to me.” — Nita Jackson, on the autism spectrum

“We do things in different ways but we are of the same worth and value and we are not broken and do not need to be fixed or cured.”
— Jean-Paul Bovee, on the autism spectrum

As Barnes works to raise money for “Understanding Stanley” to be published, she continues to add to the project and spread a message close to her heart:

“I think it’s a realistic book. It’s not very negative, and it’s also not unrealistically positive. It just reflects what I think autism is: Not wrong, just a different way of experiencing life.”


UPDATE: “Understanding Stanley” reached its fundraising goal and is now available here.


There was a time in her life when Wendy Kruse felt like she was in the only military family that had a child with a disability.

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One of her two daughters, Addie, has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy and nonverbal autism, among other developmental delays. In 2011, when Kruse’s husband, Kevin, a master chief petty officer in the navy, was deployed to Afghanistan, she was left in their Seattle home feeling isolated by the unique challenges her family faced. That aloneness persisted until the day she went to a meeting for military spouses and met a mom whose child has autism.

“We looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh gosh, we can’t be the only ones,’” Kruse recalls. She realized didn’t have to be alone.

A few weeks later, Kruse and that mother set up a meet-up for military dependents with special needs family members. Ten people showed up. They began meeting monthly. In time, that number became 200.

“We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got great support,’” Kruse recalls. “But what about the families in Alabama? What about the families in Japan?”

They decided to take their mission online and to a greater scale. Thus began the Military Special Needs Network‘s journey — one that grew quickly thanks largely to Facebook. Today, 3,600 families are a part of Kruse’s network. All 3,600 have her phone number. MSNN is about support, building relationships, educating and staying positive, Kruse says. Its members call each other in the middle of the night. No topic is too sensitive to discuss.

“We get the questions the professionals don’t,” Kruse says. “And if we don’t know the answers, we find them.”

Today, Kruse lives in San Diego and has her eye on making MSNN an official nonprofit. She and two fellow military spouses, Kelly Hafer and Miranda Fort, run its day-to-day operations — hosting weekly Q&A sessions on Facebook, putting together resources for military families, organizing events so members can meet each other, continuing outreach and working to fill gaps the military doesn’t supply for families with special needs.

“When there’s a party on a navy ship, we can’t go because there’s no wheelchair access,” Kruse explains. “If there’s a Christmas party with thousands of people there, a person with behavioral issues wouldn’t be comfortable. The military does an OK job at supporting us, but there’s more to be done.”

Kruse sees herself as the arms, legs and voice of her daughter, Addie. MSNN is a place to magnify that voice.

“It’s a fight, but it doesn’t have to be a negative fight,” Kruse says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re marching on congress or standing up to the PTA, it’s important that you’re your child’s best advocate. We’re just the information and support.”

“Every family is different,” she adds, “but together, we build one heck of a community.”

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Dear ________,

You may not know it, but you are on my mind more than you may think.  I think about you all the time. I see you. I want to help. I try to honor your inner landscape and intervene, not overpower. I try to talk with you, not at you. That’s why I do what I do; for you, with you, and with the others who care so much about you. Just like I do.

What do I do with you? I work to create a breadcrumb trail for you to follow, each and every day. Even if it seems unnecessary or confusing. Even if the intervention is “repetitive” or “not working”. I eagerly count each success and fiercely guard each disappointment I feel, so that you don’t get discouraged when things are hard. I’m aware of your attempts to reach out, to learn, to understand, and to make sense of the world around you. I’m aware that it can be a fun yet scary place, and that it’s hard sometimes to “fit in”. I try to watch out for you and cater to your strengths and preferences, while being mindful of your challenges and dislikes. I cherish our time together and each triumph, each smile, laugh, and word. I relish the unique mindset and skill set you demonstrate, and each opportunity to help you expand your horizons.

That’s why I use a combination of toys and technology, of free play and structured activities, and spontaneous conversation and elicited question and answer sessions, at different times, to help you learn to:

  • Better orient to person/place/time so you can stay “grounded” longer and more frequently and learn to sequence events and anticipate outcomes
  • Develop a sense of humor so that you can take constructive criticism and transition better, and “bounce back” more easily when things don’t go as planned
  • Categorize and group like/unalike objects and pictures and explain why? so that you get “organized in your head” and understand what “a place for everything and everything in its place” really means
  • Manage your stress levels and sensitivity to things like texture, sound, light, changes in routine etc. so that you can communicate your wants/needs and displeasure in a way we can understand and accept, and you can better problem solve how to “talk yourself away from the ledge” and let others know how you feel.

So I make seemingly random comments and suggestions to you and your family. I suggest that you do things you may want or not want to,  like (under supervision!)

  • Spending time playing with other children outside in a playground
  • Spending time reading books/stories about others and their feelings
  • Spending time learning to use specific iPad Apps
  • Spending time completing chores at home
  • Spending time with animals and/or caring for a pet
  • Spending time taking mini-road trips and outings around the neighborhood

I know, I know, you may think I’m pushy. I admit that I’m trying to teach you lots and lots. But I have a secret to share…..you have already taught me so much more than I could ever teach you! Each and every encounter I have with you enriches my life, and makes me realize things about myself, about the world, that I never knew! I also never knew how much patience and love my heart could hold, or how creative I can get with my lesson and daily planner!

Thank you for being you, and for giving me the opportunity to see who you really are. Thank you for trying so hard and for not giving up on me. I won’t give up on you. We’re in this together, and I can’t wait to see what you do next!

Love,
_________

This post originally appeared on Friendship Circle.

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