Tara Keegan and sons

Cop Steps Up When Boy's Public Meltdown Is Mistaken for Kidnapping Incident

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Tara Keegan was in the process of transferring her 8-year-old son Caleb to his tutor’s car near a convenience store in Clayton, North Carolina, last month when he had a meltdown. Caleb, who has autism, bolted from the parking lot and ran towards the road. After chasing after her son, Keegan carried him back to their car. A concerned eyewitness called the police fearing a child abduction was in progress. Clayton police officer Jeff Young arrived on the scene.

After asking Keegan and Caleb some preliminary questions, Officer Young and his partner gave the two plenty of space to get settled back in the car.

He (Young) could have made a bad situation worse,” Keegan told the town’s official website, townofclaytonnc.org. (When Caleb was 6, the family had an unpleasant experience with a law enforcement officer after he’d eloped from home.) “Instead, Officer Young spent upwards of an hour with Caleb, and it really made him feel safe.”

Keegan told The Mighty she had no problem with the bystander calling the cops, as what was unfolding very well might have looked like a kidnapping. After Caleb calmed down, Young gave him a tour of the Clayton Police Department and introduced him to the department’s K-9 officers, Abel and Major.

“People like (Officer Young) not only change lives, but they encourage others to meet people where they are without shame or judgment,” Keegan wrote in a thank you note on her Facebook page, according to townofclaytonnc.org. “In fact, my son said, ‘I liked that cop ’cause he didn’t say I was bad or not normal.’”

On Friday, Keegan shared the story during a breakfast meeting at the Clayton Chamber of Commerce, where she thanked Officer Young, who was in attendance. Keegan sent The Mighty a copy of the speech she read. She praised Young for handling the situation and for helping her speak out about her son.

“Officer Young was the first person Caleb has come into contact with that accepted him and made him feel special,” she wrote in the speech.  “I am used to people having ridiculous opinions, notions and advice; he had none of that. He just had empathy and grace. A lot of feelings go along with having a child with autism – feelings you certainly don’t share with many. To put Caleb’s diagnosis on public display has been huge for me in both healing and accepting. Officer Young is a major contributor to me being able to do so.”

“Law enforcement and EMTs need to be aware of how these children operate,” Keegan told The Mighty when asked what other cities and states can do to follow Clayton’s lead.

It was before 9 a.m. on a Monday, and Tara Keegan hadn’t even had her coffee yet. Inside a local convenience store, her… Posted by Clayton Police Department on Monday, February 29, 2016

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To the Young Adult Newly Diagnosed With Autism

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Dear Newly Diagnosed Autistic Young Adult,

I remember being in your shoes. I remember being diagnosed the day before my 18th birthday with Asperger’s syndrome. I remember being dumbfounded. I remember being in denial. I remember being confused. I also remember being angry and not being able to make sense out of how in the world someone like me, who got stellar grades, worked my behind off, and was happy exactly how I was… I didn’t understand how someone like myself could possibly be…. autistic. Truth be told, I was fighting hard against many of my own previously hidden biases against people who’ve been labeled “autistic” or having “special needs” or any of their like counterparts in terms of labels.

I always thought of individuals with autism as only being the way I remember classmates who had “classic” autism behaving. I didn’t see myself as being “significantly” socially challenged, nor did I view myself as having “special needs” simply because others didn’t see the world the way I did. In my mind, others had an obligation to conform to my view of the world, my way of interacting, my sensory overload reactions, etc. I didn’t see myself as living with the level of deficit others were telling me I exhibited.

I took about a week to gather my thoughts, to cry my tears and to process this new information with my parents before I allowed them to share my diagnosis with any family or friends. Before I decided I wanted to continue my lifestyle of living life as an “open book,” I allowed myself to grieve the life I thought I’d had, and suddenly found myself feeling as though I were losing. Once I felt I’d had enough of my personal grieving time, I decided to take life by the horns and type a Facebook status formally informing my friends and some family that I had received a formal diagnosis of autism. Posting that status was nerve-wracking, and I was afraid of the judgment I believed I would receive in return for my honesty. Much to my surprise, I received nothing but positive reactions, encouragement and thanks for my bravery in sharing my new reality with my little world on Facebook.

The moral of my story is that an autism diagnosis does not change who you are. It doesn’t change your personality or the features people love about you. It doesn’t change your future or what you can do with it. An autism diagnosis is just a guide and a tool to help you better understand yourself. A diagnosis of autism helps you and those around you better understand why you do what you do in terms of social interactions, behaviors in general, sensory processing challenges and much more. A diagnosis is an aid to you, those you love and those who try to help you. Stay strong, and remember this is a beginning, not an end. 

Sincerely,
Autistic Too

Woman sitting next to a pond in a park

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Family Opens Gym for People on the Autism Spectrum

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When Adam and Dedra Leapley’s son was about 15, an active lifestyle was difficult to maintain.

Like with many others on the autism spectrum, places like gyms and organized sporting events could often be overstimulating and uncomfortable. The Leapleys tried to hire a personal trainer but struggled to find a perfect match — until they met a trainer whose sister was also on the spectrum. Their son, now able to connect with someone who better understood him, began to find joy in fitness, and his healthier lifestyle seemed to help in all areas of his life.

“It was like a transformation,” Adam Leapley recalls. “It was eye-opening for me.”

Thrilled with the positive impact of exercise, the Leapleys asked themselves, Why isn’t there a fitness center for people with autism spectrum disorder? 

Their answer was to open their own. In June 2014, ASD Fitness Center, a 5,000-square foot facility, opened in Orange, Connecticut.

ASD fitness center logo
Photo courtesy of ASD Fitness Center
Organizers cut ribbon on opening day of ASD Fitness Center
Photo courtesy of ASD Fitness Center

The ASD Fitness Center offers small group classes and one-on-one sessions for people ages 5 and up on the spectrum, and their families. Most members are between the ages 10 to 17, but adults on the spectrum also attend. Its eight trainers all have backgrounds in working with people on the spectrum, which Leapley says is key to their success. They provide personalized individual fitness programs (IFP) with options to add nutrition and life skill goals (like riding a bike). Group classes include adaptive yoga, hip-hop, karate and circuit cardio. The gym itself has sectioned workout stations to provide privacy. Its walls are beige, there’s no bright lighting, music, and mufflers under the floor help tone down echoing sounds. They also passed on the typical “speckled” gym floors (usually chosen to hide dirt) and just clean more regularly.

“We try to keep it as calm and comfortable as possible,” Leapley told The Mighty.

lower body station at ASD Fitness Center
Lower body station at ASD Fitness Center
student takes adaptive karate
Young gym member taking adaptive karate at ASD Fitness Center

Right now, 84 families are members; Leapley anticipates that number capping at about 110-120, based on available resources and space. Some members travel up to an hour to work out. Leapley’s son, now 20, works at the gym; and they hope to hire more people on the spectrum.

To make all this possible, Leapley, who’s also an investment manager, gets help from an advisory board that includes pediatricians, professors, therapists, special educators, fitness CEOs and more. He credits Dr. Fred Volkmar, of the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, for taking interest when the fitness center was merely an idea.

A few gyms around the country exist for toddlers and young children on the spectrum; others offer programs, sessions or special events for older children and teens with autism, but as far as Leapley knows, the ASD Fitness Center is the first of its kind in the U.S.

He says the next step is getting into schools and training educators in adaptive physical education (PE). Though schools are required by law to accommodate students with special needs, unfortunately, Leapley says these efforts often aren’t executed well. Trainers from his gym are working to help educators understand how to motivate students on the spectrum in comfortable, appropriate ways so these students can be included and get daily exercise at school.

“Our goal is to reach out to as many people as possible,” Leapely told The Mighty.

For more information, visit the ASD Fitness Center’s website and Facebook page.

h/t Hartford Courant

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Book Follows Autistic 6-Year-Old's Journey in International Art World

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Iris Grace made headlines at the age of 3 when the Internet took note of her incredible paintings. She caught our attention again in 2014 when photos and videos of her therapy cat Thula went viral. Now, at 6 years old, Iris is in the news yet again, thanks to a famous client purchasing one of her original paintings.

Iris, who has autism, has sold nearly two dozen pieces to private art collectors across the world over the last two years, her mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, told The Mighty. Angelina Jolie recently bought one, according to Iris’ website, and Carter-Johnson just published a book chronicling the balance between her daughter’s journey on the international art scene and life at home.

Carter-Johnson told The Mighty she wanted to show others what it is like to parent a child with autism, but also to show that “there can be a future … a bright one.” The book, simple titled “Iris Grace,” features images of Iris’ paintings, images of her in action and diary entries from Carter-Johnson.

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Original Art by Iris Graceon
“Dancing in Snowflakes” by Iris Grace

Carter-Johnson explained that her daughter knows about the reach her artwork has, but the family tries not to make too much of a fuss about it. “Iris knows people have bought some of her pieces for their homes so they can enjoy them every day, but we do protect her from the media,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “There are a great many paintings that we would never sell, as they mean so much to her.”

Carter Johnson says she’s seen Iris’ confidence soar over the last few years, and she also credits her daughter’s progress to the introduction of her therapy cat, who was introduced to the family two years ago.

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Under The Sea by Iris Grace
“Under The Sea” by Iris Grace

Though she has sold original paintings to art collectors in South America, Asia, Europe and the United States, Iris hasn’t had an official exhibition, and her mom isn’t pushing it. For now, Iris’ parents want her to continue using painting as a way to share her voice with the world. “If we stretch ourselves too far, we will lose what we have worked so hard on, which is following Iris’s lead,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “That’s what this was always and will always be about. That’s what the paintings mean, they are a way for Iris to express herself and for us to connect.”

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson

Trumpet by Iris Grace
“Trumpet” by Iris Grace

“She is happy when she paints, sometimes elated, excited, then at other times it calms her,” Carter-Johnson told The Mighty. “For me, I hope this book spreads a message of hope and how different is brilliant.”

“Iris Grace” was published in hardcover by Penguin Books on Feb. 25.

Thula Mtwana by Iris Grace Carter-Johnson

Iris Grace Carter-Johnson painting

Thula, Iris Grace Carter-Johnson's therapy cat

Iris Grace Book Cover

Dance to the Oboe by Iris Grace
“Dance to the Oboe” by Iris Grace

For more information about Iris Grace and her art, visit her website, Facebook page and you can order her book on Book Depository.  

All images courtesy of Arabella Carter-Johnson.

h/t Bored Panda

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Students Take Action After Learning About Lack of Resources for Peers With Autism

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When students at East Hartford High School in Connecticut were given an assignment to create a project to better a community for their Human Rights and Law class, they chose to raise money to purchase new iPads for their peers with autism.

The teens recently learned iPads can assist nonverbal students in developing language and life skills, but they were shocked to learn their school offered just two iPads for 19 students with autism to use.

Every human deserves an education,” student Alina Figueroa told the Hartford Courant. “I was so surprised when I learned they didn’t have enough iPads.”

East Hartford High special education teacher Julie Rowland explained how helpful the devices can be. “[An iPad] promotes language, it promotes behavior, it really helps them with those life skills,” she told the paper. “You can enlarge things for the kids who don’t have an easy time seeing, you can change subjects quickly without having to print things out or plan too much. The possibilities are endless because it’s portable.”

On the project’s Go Fund Me page, the class wrote, “[We] want to make positive change for people in our community.”

So far the class has raised $655 of its $1,500 goal.

Students felt the project connected real world issues, like access to education, to their community in East Hartford and allowed them to do something impactful in their own hallways.

Posted by Hartford Courant on Monday, February 29, 2016

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To the Person in a Relationship With Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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It’s not that you did anything wrong. It’s not that we’re in a mindless routine in our relationship. It’s not that we haven’t talked much or spent real time together. It’s not that I’m miffed by miscommunication. I’m not falling out of love with you.

It’s my overtaxed and overstimulated nervous system. It’s that the intoxicating newness quietly died away over time. It’s that I am in a shut-down mode and can’t connect myself to reality. It’s that I could use destress downtime and want to fully utilize it. I am having a hard time comprehending and expressing emotions and feelings again.

Emotions are a foreign concept. They’re one of the most confusing, and scary, concepts for me to fathom. That’s not to say I don’t have natural reactions and sensations in my body; I very well do. More so I do not innately understand them. Like autism and anything else in the world, there is a wide extending continuum on which emotions range. The depths, obscurities and forms vary between people, situations and moments. All that makes sense. But emotions are arbitrary and abstract – that’s the baffling part.

If anything I learned emotions contextually. I cannot pinpoint or break down what exact emotion a sensation is in my body sometimes, to say, “yes, that is what this particular sensation is and this is why I’m feeling it.” Frequently the depth is so great that it’s exhausting and terrifying. To let myself truly, fully feel something I don’t understand sometimes seems as though it’s going to break me. Throw in the myriad of everyday occurrences, my and other’s reactions, and various physical and external stimuli, it becomes too much. My autism production line to filter, process and absorb can easily get overworked.

It’s affected all kinds of relationships throughout my life. Emotions have held me back and deprived me, but it has also given me continual opportunities and experiences to learn more, to practice. It has given me both unnerving frustration and deep fulfillment. Most relationships are fairly steady, smooth, and the interaction frequency can be adjusted to some degree. The biggest testing is romantically.

Beginning romance is easily understood. There’s clearer distinction of what you’re feeling, freshness of attention, minimal pressure and a general acceptance of shyness and imperfection. As that wanes and disappears I resort to my default. The infatuation stage loses its hold of being the height of my attention span. I become more “me.”

“Easy” emotions dissolve into ambiguous ones. They don’t have as clear of meaning. I don’t know how to act. Avoidance starts, physical contact gets to be too much. My overall disconnect rises because I’m reaching interpersonal space and stimuli thresholds easily again. For the longest time I didn’t recognize how that affected my interactions with partners. It’s easy to see why most of them never lasted more than a few months. It was hard to give and be in the relationship when there’s equally important things that needed my time, energy, and focus, in school, work and family.

My relationship now is the longest I’ve ever had. And it’s hard, love. It is for anyone. The difference this time around is I decided to stick through those struggles and the foreignness. To share myself wholly with you in all ways. To bare my skin and let all of me, disabilities included, be unreservedly shown. To learn, experience and grow with you. That even though the majority of the time I have no idea what is going on internally and it’s immensely overwhelming, I still deeply feel and love you. I know sometimes you might not see or believe it. There are the moments where it’s tougher because I’m more rigid, or ornery because I don’t know what’s going on inside. I waver between expressing myself and not giving anything. But I do want to be with you. I want to explore the depths of what’s possible in all ways and slowly stretch my constraints, to know that I’m not going to break if I let myself understand and embrace my feelings, simply because they’re alien.

I may never fully understand emotions, mine included. But now I know that’s OK. It doesn’t limit or make my experiences any less. It doesn’t make who I am or my connections and interactions with you or others any less. I know I have and always had strong, immense natural energy that flows in my body and I might not be able to put a name or label to them, but I do feel.

So believe me when I say I love you. Sometimes it’s hard to.

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