Shawna Altenburger’s son, Gavin

When My Son on the Autism Spectrum Asked If He Could Take Ballet Lessons


Three years ago, when my son, Gavin, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, we were advised to make a new road map for him. It was recommended that we move forward cautiously with our expectations of his growth. We needed to be aware that everything we had planned for him may or may not happen.

I watched friends post on social media about their children’s accomplishments with bittersweet emotions. Many of the posts were about children who were Gavin’s age or younger, but they were doing things he was nowhere close to achieving. I was obviously happy for my friends and their children, but my heart broke a little each time wondering when/if we would ever be able to share in those same milestones.

This week, I got to share in some of the events I thought might not ever happen. They were destinations I wrote off our road map three years ago. These events came later than I had originally planned, but the great thing is we just took a long detour.

On Wednesday, Gavin started his last year of preschool. This event was huge for a multitude of reasons. He was entering an inclusive environment instead of being in the autism sub-separate classroom. Secondly, we decided late this summer to move him from his school to one closer to our apartment, since he no longer needed the sub-separate room.

He was scared, as any child would be, entering a new school, but he asked my husband, Doug, and I if he was going to a new school because he was a “big boy.” What an amazing observation! Even Gavin was able to recognize his own growth and realized this new school was almost like a reward for his hard work.

Organized sports and activities were another area of our road map that I had deleted from our thoughts. I watched Gavin face challenges for years to listen to teachers, to play well with others and to follow directions for an extended period of time.

However, in late March, after Gavin switched classrooms, he was invited to a birthday party at a gymnastics center. The party focused on a ton of group activities and involved kids waiting their turn while they sat peacefully in a circle. I had been to these parties before when my daughter, Kendall, was younger, and to bring Gavin to similar one increased my anxiety level. I was sure he would not sit still, and I would be chasing him around the room the entire time. However, to my surprise, he was participating fully. He listened to everything the instructors asked the birthday guests to do. He waited his turn patiently and participated enthusiastically when it was his turn. I saw a new boy. A boy who was developing at his own pace and was finally ready to be involved in social activities.

Later this spring, Gavin joined me at one of Kendall’s ballet lessons. He leaned over halfway through and asked, “Next year, I do ballet?” I was shocked. This was the first time he expressed interest in a group activity that wasn’t school related. I leaned over and said, “Sure, Gavin. If you sit quietly through the rest of her lesson, you can do ballet in the fall.” I have never seen him sit so calmly before. He didn’t make a peep. He watched for the next 30 minutes in silence, and when the class ended, he leaned over and said, “Now I do ballet next year?” It was impossible to say no.

I was ecstatic to enroll Gavin in ballet, yet I knew we had one last huge step to get him there — the clothes. Even if Gavin wanted to be a dancer, I was concerned that he didn’t realize this meant he had to wear a certain outfit. After convincing him that he wouldn’t wear the same clothes as Kendall, he finally understood he needed a white shirt and black pants. I asked him to wear black shoes for class, but he insisted on white. I think it was the one way he felt like he had some control of the situation.

This Saturday, after a short struggle to get him dressed, we walked Gavin over to his first ballet class. He followed the directions as I would expect any 4-year-old would. He understood the directions, and in normal Gavin fashion, he spent the bulk of the lesson taking in the room and studying it so he knew where things belonged. All and all, he did great, and I know going forward he is only going to get better.

We are beyond proud of him not just for his ballet lesson, but for also wanting to be involved with other children.

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Taylor Cross and his mom Keri, hugging outdoors

My Experience Making 'Normal People Scare Me Too'


Making our film, “Normal People Scare Me Too,” with a cast and crew of autistic people was challenging, both during filming and editing. But when we finished our film in April, the rewards were worth it. We had about 75 percent of cast, crew, art, animation and music done by autistic people. Beyond the cast and crew, though, making our film as mother and son, was really hard at times — especially for me as an adult, and for my mom in the roles of both a director and a mother.

If you are a parent, you might relate to asking yourself this important question: “When do I back off, and when do I keep doing things in my kid’s life — especially when they are adults?” If you are like me, you might ask yourself this about your parent a lot! We had to deal with this question — over and over — for an entire year while making our film, and it was definitely not always easy. We know lots of parents around the world who work as their adult child’s “manager” to support and promote their futures and micro-enterprise-like businesses. This sometimes creates breakdowns and hopeful breakthroughs.

I worked on this article, at first by myself, and then side-by-side with my mom. When we made our first film, “Normal People Scare Me,” a decade ago, I was 15 years old. Today, I am 27 and live independently with supports. Mostly, these are my words with a bit of my mom’s suggestions to help me word things that are hard for me to get out. She asked me basic questions to help get me started.

Mom: Taylor, what motivated you to make this film?

Me: OK, I’m laughing at myself right now. I’m sitting in front of my laptop, inside of a Chipotle, finding it difficult to find the motivation to write an opening paragraph that’s almost all about motivation and how I sometimes have trouble with it. It’s laughably ironic.

Mom: Is that a common theme for you, trying to find motivation for things you want or need to do in your life?

Me: Yes, it can be very hard. It is often the process steps that confuse or stall me. What does any of this have to do with my experiences filming “Normal People Scare Me Too”? A lot. It’s about how I decided that I needed to get back on the proverbial horse so that I could lead a life that I’m more than happy with, and the journey it will take to get there, and the amount of effort it would take for me to get there.

I got involved with NSMP2 very early on in pre-production, when (you) asked me if I want to do the film. I accepted almost immediately. However, I was not heavily involved with the main production of the film behind the scenes. My primary responsibility during the film-making process of NPSM2 could be summed up fairly easily. I was essentially the lead actor who helped guide the other actors to better serve their parts on camera. I asked the questions that were in the script, and I went off-script to ask even more questions that were related to the people I interviewed. Some of the better recorded moments were even tangents that couldn’t be helped because they showed the struggles some people as a whole go through on a day-to-day basis, and that’s not even factoring in the autism. Those are the ones that I remember the most.

Mom: What were the highlights for you in the interviews you had with old and new cast members?

Me: For me, the things that I remember the most are some of the most emotionally intense in the film. However, they are intense for the same reason stated above, it’s just some of the struggles and horrors people go through every day. I remember those moments because they serve as a strong reminder that people will not believe that things are going to be OK just because someone says so, but because they will believe things are going to be OK because they want to get help, and will move their butts to obtain said help. Also, it makes the more inspirational moments shown in the film all the more special to me.

As an example, one of my childhood friends, Vince, got involved with wrestling — something he was passionate about since he was a kid. I was excited for him when he told me about that on camera. However, it also got me to think about where I was going in my life, because he showed that his passions have made him a much more emotionally healthy person. I wanted the same thing he had. So I re-evaluated everything about myself. My likes, my dislikes, and my overall skill set. That got me on the path to going back to school, getting job development, and the support needed to succeed at both.

There were also points where I got to chat with some of the people from the first NPSM, like Vince, Ben, Kyle, Rick and others who are now 10 years older and have gained more real world experience in between the two films. Some have become really cool people that I would totally hang out with if we lived in the same area code. With others, I just went and quickly put them in the “best kept as acquaintances” folder of my mind’s file cabinet. We all have those, you know.

Mom: What are you doing now to help you with motivation?

Me: I have new and better staff in place now. My current staff, James, who is employed to work with me through a program called FADE, is on the autism spectrum. He is close to my age, and he gets me. Last semester, he attended an English class with me at community college. After failing college classes in the past, I finally got my first B. That was highly motivating.

I have fallen down a lot since I made the first “Normal People Scare Me” film.  I graduated a Transitions to Independent Living (TIL) program through the ARC of Ventura County. Three years ago, I moved into my apartment supported by Social Security and support staff.  People often ask me why I can’t “just” follow through? Or say to me, “Taylor, if you would ‘just’…”  I seem capable, yet executive and administrative functioning are hard for me. Sometimes it is hard to say the right words or share my thoughts. It’s just hard to get them all out. Sometimes, when I am interviewed for my film work, though, I get my words out OK.

Mom: Sometimes you wanted to drop out of the film. Why was that?

Me: During the filming of “Normal People Scare Me Too” this past year, I almost dropped out of the project. I just didn’t know where I fit in to “Normal” and making my real dream of becoming a gaming reviewer happen. At one point I told you (Mom) and Joey Travolta (our producer) to just finish the film without me, because I felt no value to me in completing the project.

After I took some time to think about it and realized that I needed to form the skills that would be required of me to do what I really wanted to do, finishing this film made more sense to be a foundation for eventual goal of being a good writer. So here we are. Needless to say I completed the film because along the way I found inspiration among the people I interviewed in “Normal People Scare Me Too” to get back on the horse I mentioned so that I could lead a life I’m more than happy with and the journey it would take to get there. I am beginning to see I have to do many things that take a lot of effort if I want to reach my other goals.

Mom: What would you say to young autistic boys/girls, men/women about following their dreams?

Me: Well, now I feel motivated to go after what I truly want in life outside of this film (which was a lot of fun to do), and I will go to great lengths to get it. I hope that my thoughts on how “Normal People Scare Me Too” affected me on a personal level will inspire people to get either themselves or others to be motivated to live life to the fullest. Doing the hard thing eventually inspired me. It is not easy, but hey, who said life would be?

And now that the film is done, I look forward to speaking engagements and to sharing our film all over the world. And even though I like to travel with my mom to speak, if my staff, James can come, I would really like that.

About the Film:

A decade after the award-winning film “Normal People Scare Me” was released, Taylor Cross, the film’s co-creator, is at it again with “Normal People Scare Me Too.” In the new “Normal,” he interviews former and new cast members and family about attitudes and first-person perspectives about autism today.

Created by a film crew comprised of 75 percent autistic students and graduates of Joey Travolta’s Inclusion Films, with music and art created and performed by 65 percent autistic musicians/composers/artists, the new “Normal” is pleased to be a more inclusive production this time around. “Normal People Scare Me Too” is driven by Taylor Cross, directed and co-produced by Keri Bowers (Taylor’s mom,) and produced by Joey Travolta. Keri is the co-founder of The Art of Autism, a key supporter behind the scenes of the film, and has created four films about autism and other disabilities. The new “Normal” can be ordered through our website.

About Taylor and Keri:

Together, Taylor and Keri have worked on four documentary films together, including “Normal People Scare Me,” “The Sandwich Kid,” “ARTS,” and “Normal People Scare Me Too.” Their films have taken them all over the world to speak at conferences and facilitate workshops on transitions planning and person-centered practices. Using the arts as tools for interventions since Taylor was an infant — including music, drama, movement, art and film — Keri helped Taylor gain critical life and social skills, which have supported him to live independently as an adult. Keri is the co-founder of The Art of Autism, a sponsor of their new film.

mom and son take a selfie

To the Strangers Who Stare as My Teenage Son With Autism Behaves 'Inappropriately' in Public


Hello there, stranger.

Sometimes.

I see you staring at my son as he towers over me and squishes my cheeks over and over while I browse the organic produce. I see you wondering why I allow him to kiss me on the lips in public, and I feel your judgment when I don’t reprimand him for wearing the attitude that the two of you are equals, rather than him a 16-year-old boy and you an adult.

I see it, and I feel it, and I respond in my own way. 

If it feels appropriate, I’ll explain my reasons. If you ask outright about us I’m more than happy to tell you. I love to share and discover reasons! And if my son begins to squirm from the weight of your misinformation or judgment or misunderstanding or difference of opinion, I’ll explain to him. Maybe loud enough for you to hear if I feel that will help.

You see, I learned early that allowing my loved ones to be themselves is more important than teaching them to be who you expect. My brothers were all on the autism spectrum, and if my mom taught me or them to act only as expected then we may have all died of self-loathing by now. Instead she taught us to explore our interests and passions and to do so with such comfort that we are able to share who we are with those who may be curious. 

She taught us to be so comfortable with any strangeness that is truly us that we can’t help but want you to be comfortable, too. Rather than feel compelled to shove our difference in your face with anger or “I dare you to say something” attitude, we live and love and are ourselves comfortably.

I’ll admit I learned the value of fitting in and learning to care about the expectations of others a little bit later–and it’s true there is value there, too. With a willingness to hear the views of the many and to consider the comfort of the masses I have been able to teach my loved ones to keep an open mind and a flexible nature. Also, we’ve discovered tips and tricks for sharing our own passions more clearly and to a bigger audience. That is a lovely thing!

So, I learned caring about discovering my unique self and encouraging those I love to discover their unique selves, first. Later I learned to care also about your unique needs and ideas.

mom and son take a selfie

The two go well together, most of the time. And when I struggle to see how the pieces fit – our unique selves and your unique needs and ideas– I’ll always choose accepting myself and my loved ones first, over worrying about you. Not only because myself and my loved ones are more my responsibility, but because I am unable to guess correctly the expectations of you, a kindly stranger staring as my son purses his lips and makes animal sounds in the produce section. Also, I believe you have the ability to help yourself and need less from me than my loved ones do.

I see you staring as my son towers over me and squishes my cheeks, and I respond in my own way. I hope you’re open to my style of communication and are truly curious rather than assumptive. Communication – every kind of communication–is understood best that way.

I learned exploring unique and personal passions first, and finding how they fit with society later.

Want to know a secret? I think, honestly, that’s the best order.

young man fishing

Why We Couldn't Be More Proud of How Our Autistic Son Handled August


Each year, millions of students whiz off to the first day of school without much of a problem. They may wonder who their teacher will be or if their best friend will be in their class, but it doesn’t really get in the way of them enjoying the end of their
summer.

For some time, this has not been the case in our house. The last three weeks of August in recent years have become a challenge for our 15-year-old autistic son John and by extension, for my wife and me. Every year we would brace for the inevitable firestorm of anxiety and tears and worry and stimming that would come like clockwork.

Every year we would do our best to keep him busy, keep his mind occupied. Fishing. Friend visits. Water Parks. Amusement  parks. Hit the pool.  Hit the beach. Hit the bottle (OK that one’s just for us!). Still the anxiety would arrive and it would just come on suddenly, and then largely dissipate after day one of school. The anxiety would be so bad he would scarcely enjoy the things we were working so hard at doing to keep him busy.

Sometimes I didn’t know what made me feel worse. Was it the fact that he had this anxiety, or was it the fact that he wasn’t enjoying anything at all?

We waited for it this year, the anxiety. Waited for it like that aunt who just shows up unannounced in a cab, tells you to pay it and then stays for a few days. We braced ourselves. We filled the calendar. We manned the battle stations and went on red alert, and do you know what happened? It never showed. And while you might miss an aunt who just shows up out of nowhere and visits, I must say we really didn’t miss the anxiety.

He went fishing, he hung out with his friends, he hit up amusement parks and fairs; and this year he enjoyed it all. Where there was brooding, we had smiling. Where there was angst, we had joy. As a parent, it was a beautiful thing to watch. To see him just being a kid brings me a sense of immeasurable joy. It was so much more than just the fun though. It’s a feeling of accomplishment. Like maybe the 8000th time I’ve said, “You’ve done this all before, and it’s fine, you’ll be OK” was finally the one that stuck? In that case I’m glad I never stopped saying it.

That feeling of success and accomplishment just doesn’t always come from the same place for parents of an autistic child as it does for parents of neurotypical kids. This August of Peace, as I now refer to it, is our “he made the team” moment for my wife and me. And you know what? We couldn’t be more proud of him.

Inside an Anova Kit

Ideas That Will Make Going Out to Eat More Enjoyable for Kids With Sensory Sensitivities


For many people, going out to eat is considered a treat, but for people on the autism spectrum or people with sensory sensitivities, spending an hour or two at a restaurant can be too overwhelming to enjoy. To make dining out a pleasurable experience for everyone, The Mighty spoke with Alyson Musetti, a behavior analyst at Anova, a nonprofit organization which provides education and resources to people with learning differences, to learn some tips and tricks to make dining out more enjoyable. Below are some ways families can prepare their children, as well as make their own sensory-friendly restaurant kits.

Before Going Out to Eat

Identify Your Child’s Triggers 

“If parents know what the potential triggers are for their child, they can be equipped with the strategies and tools to manage those [circumstances] to prevent the problem behavior from happening,” Musetti said. Think back to previous experiences dining out, identify what went wrong and try to come up with creative solutions for addressing those issues.

Prepare Your Child, Let Them Know What to Expect

Let your child know what they can expect to happen at the restaurant. The more information you can provide, the better. Some things you can tell them include the name of the restaurant, where will they sit (table or booth, windows or no windows, etc.), what kind of food will be there, what kinds of people will be there (workers, cooks, other families, etc.), what will they do while they are sitting at the table, how long will they be there, and what happens after leaving the restaurant.

You should also let your child know what you expect from them. Talk to them about behavior at restaurants. Musetti recommends setting the following expectations: using an inside voice, waiting patiently for food, saying please and thank you and sitting in the chair.

You can also look for social stories about dining in a restaurant. Reading social stories can be helpful before going out to eat as well as while you are at the restaurant.

Make a Sensory-Friendly Restaurant Kit

As part of their programming, Anova runs a sensory-friendly restaurant initiative, which provides restaurants with kits that can help children on the spectrum avoid meltdowns. The program is still in its infancy (only a dozen restaurants in Northern California carry the kits so far), so Musetti shared with us how you can make your own. Here is what Anova’s kit includes (links are suggestions with comparable items):

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