Video camera, film reels, and film set clapperboard on table

When a child is diagnosed with autism, well-known therapies like speech, occupational and physical therapy can be introduced. One therapy that tends to get overlooked in my work, though, is “theater therapy.”

When I was diagnosed with autism at 4, I was already a huge fan of Disney films. Even though I hadn’t started to talk in complete sentences yet, I’d say a few of the words and then hum the rest of the time. That fascination only grew with being a fan of shows like “Thomas The Tank Engine,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Power Rangers.” My love of these shows made me want to mimic the characters at times.

Months later, after my diagnosis was confirmed, my parents would take notice of this when trying to find new and innovative ways to help me overcome some of my social and communication challenges. This led to the start of my journey in theater therapy. For the next 15 year,s from pre-K through graduating high school, I would act in over 20 plays. My love of film and television would only continue to blossom. Even though I would stop acting to focus on school and disability advocacy, I was still truly happy with being a fan of the TV and film industry.

Then something unexpected happened.

A few years later, I was starting an internship and received a call from a movie director named Todd Graff. He had heard about my work in the autism community and wanted to ask if I could help with his new film, “Joyful Noise,” in which one of the characters had Asperger’s syndrome. I immediately thought I was being “Punk’d.” But after a short conversation, he sent me the script of his play. A week later, we had lunch in New York, and after that conversation, he asked me to be a consultant on the film to make sure the character in his film was as realistic a portrayal of a person on the autism spectrum as possible. After a year and a half of being a consultant, the film was released, and I was able to go to the world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California. Then after the film was over, I saw my name at the end of the credits. I had finally seen my name, after years of being a fan of film, in an actual film.

That moment was something I will never forget. Since that time, I’ve continued to consult for several films, including “Jane Wants a Boyfriend,” “Don’t Foil My Plans,” and “Big Daddy Autism” to keep that portrayal of those with autism and disabilities as realistic as possible.

Looking back as the kid who used to be nonverbal and have so many challenges, I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to help an industry I have a passion for. I can only hope more projects will continue to give me these opportunities to follow one of my true passions for years to come.

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Last week, Toys “R” Us locations throughout the U.K. announced they would be hosting an hour-long quiet holiday shopping event for customers on the autism spectrum. Now, U.S. Toys “R” Us stores are following suit with the first sensory-friendly holiday shopping event scheduled in Lafayette, Louisiana.

“We’re working on a plan to test these types of opportunities on a local level – pairing our stores with local organizations to create an event for kids with special needs and their families,” a representative for Toys “R” Us told The Mighty. “The Lafayette event is a great example of the localized opportunities we’re testing to make it more convenient and comfortable for families and children with special needs to shop our stores. And, as we continue to plan these types of events on a local level, we are assessing the best way to scale them nationally.”

Unlike the shopping events in the U.K., the Lafayette shopping event will run for two hours on Sunday, November 13, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. According to KLFY News, lights will be dimmed, fluorescent lighting will be limited, in-store music will play at a low volume and no announcements will be made.

For those parents who want their children’s holiday presents to remain a surprise, employees will be available to walk children around the store while parents shop or sit with children while they color in a sectioned-off quiet zone. Snacks and photo sessions with Geoffrey the Giraffe, Toy’s “R” Us’s mascot, will be also be provided.

The event is being held in partnership with the Autism Society of Acadiana at the Toys “R” Us on 5700 Johnston Street, Lafayette, Louisiana.

The Lafayette Toys “R” Us is asking people to RSVP by emailing the Autism Society of Acadiana or calling 337-235-4425 before Wednesday, November 9. You do not have to RSVP to attend.

The Mighty will update this article when more shopping events and dates are announced. 

Photo credit: Mike Mozart

My son Jacob has always loved the water. As an infant, he played in the tub until the bath turned cold. In preschool, he built boats out of the blocks and commandeered the faux fishing boat at the local children’s museum. Gordon Lightfoot’s Grammy-nominated 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” set off a two-year-long obsession with shipwrecks that culminated in a trip to the heralded Whitefish Point.

Jacob’s deep love of shipwrecks opened up a keen interest in underwater worlds. When he was 8 years old, we signed him up for an introduction to scuba course at our local pool. He floated in the pool, blew bubbles and breathed underwater with the use of scuba gear. Jacob left his class enamored and determined to become scuba certified when he turned 10, the legal age for junior open-water certification. For the next two years, we heard all about his quest to become scuba certified so he could visit the many sunken ships he had read about. He was a voracious reader and lover of documentaries, spending hours upon hours learning about the many sunken ships in the Great Lakes, near where we live, in hopes of one day diving to the bottom of Lake Michigan and exploring them in real life.

It was no surprise that on Jacob’s 10th birthday he didn’t want a party or a bunch of presents. He just wanted to become scuba certified. I brought him to our local scuba shop to sign him up, along with my water-loving husband. While parents were not required to get certified with their child, I was worried about Jacob’s autism and ADHD and how he would handle the water — and the requirements for certification. Being the overprotective parent I am, I wanted his father to become certified with him, helping to quell my own concerns about the safety of scuba diving. I was sure my husband would take to scuba diving like the fish-to-water he is, while I could sit on the beach and hold down the fort.

I am the sand dweller in our family; I had trepidations when it came to water after an undertow sucked me out past the water break as a child. Even 30 years later, I still became panicked in the open water; my heart rate would quicken and my teeth clenched every time I went near a large body of water. So imagine my surprise when my husband informed me he was not signing up to get scuba certified with Jacob. My eyes cut to our 10-year-old son, who was witnessing this discussion unfold. Fear washed over his face as he realized if one of his parents didn’t decide to participate in the class, then he could not become scuba certified.

I smiled at my son, my heart in my throat. “I’ll do the course with you!” I exclaimed. I still don’t know how I put aside my fear of the water for my child, but seeing his expression, I knew I had to step up and take one for the team. What I didn’t realize at the time was the extensive benefits scuba diving would have for Jacob. For a child who is quiet and can lack self-esteem, scuba diving has given him confidence to speak about his trips with not only his classmates, but also with adults. Diving has also provided therapy benefits for some of the challenges Jacob faces with his autism spectrum disorder. The equipment is like a giant hug, providing deep proprioceptive feedback to his system. Scuba diving has given so much to my son; I never could have dreamed it would be so beneficial.

Over the next few months, Jacob studied for his course, did the confined pool dives with no issue, mastered the underwater skills, and then successfully passed his open-water certification while we were on vacation in St. Thomas. And I was there every step of the way, learning with him. ADHD and autism can sometimes make studying challenging for Jacob, but he hunkered down, focused his attention on the materials, and he passed the written test.

Now, three years later, he and I travel the world, just the two of us, exploring underwater reefs and shipwrecks. This past summer, Jacob, now 13 years old, did his first shipwreck dive, the USS Kittiwake in Grand Cayman, and he was a natural. I sat back and allowed him to lead, watching him skirt through the various room openings as he guided up the exterior of the bow and over the helm, playing with the machine gun turrets and grabbing hold of the wheel. He was in heaven, and so was I witnessing his excitement and pleasure.

It is amazing how my son’s love of shipwrecks has opened the world up for me. Scuba diving has given me the gift of overcoming my fear of the water, an opportunity to travel the world, but most importantly, it has brought my son and I together. Witnessing your child’s excitement and joy is something any parent can treasure. I just get to do it 60 feet underwater.

Image via Contributor.

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Whenever I go to speak at a new venue about my life on the autism spectrum, parents often tell me about their frustration over people saying “I’m sorry” when they tell them their child is on the autism spectrum.

This is something I continue to hear again and again…

When I hear those words in regards to my autism diagnosis, I often link it to sadness or that I “lost something” due to having autism spectrum disorder. I’ve been told I’m sorry by strangers, peers and even on several dates.

I’m not often upset when someone says these words, but I want them to know that I’m OK and I’m living my dreams today. Life was tougher when I was a kid, but because I stuck to my therapies and my interests, I’m able to thrive as an adult today.

Because of this, every time I hear these two words, I respond by saying this:

“Don’t be sorry. Autism is a part of who I am.”

I say this because when people learn more about my story, and my key interests in things like films, public speaking and basketball, they are able to understand my experience of being on the autism spectrum. Sure, it was a long road to get to this point, but I can truly say I’m happy today. Isn’t that what so many of us want?

I advocate because I want people to be accepting of those with autism while also providing supports to help each of our loved ones progress.

Please don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead, get to know us and who we are.

Just like you would anyone else.

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I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when I was 15 years old. By that time, I’d been through so much already. I had to learn how to develop most of my coping skills on my own. But even as a 27-year-old adult, I’m still struggling to get by in the world. So when I say I’m having a hard time and need extra help, it’s important to respect that as the truth.

When I say that, for right now, I can’t take more than one college class at a time because it’s so overwhelming, I’m not using my diagnosis as an excuse. I’m being realistic. Yes, I may be getting wonderful grades, but I’m working hard for them. I’m spending extra time just trying to understand the assignments and the material, because I know I tend to misinterpret things. One class is enough for now to nearly send me into a panic.

When I try to tell people that I don’t know how to do something that seems obvious, it’s not because I’m being “lazy” or “difficult.” I’m asking for help because I don’t have the ability to apply what I’ve learned in past situations to new ones. When others do things such as socializing or learning a new skill, they seem to know how to go about it. And even if they really don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, they at least know what not to do based on past experiences. I’m not always able to apply these ideas to new situations, so I really struggle and usually find myself just freezing up.

When I say I’m having a meltdown, I’m not just taking a break to relax. I’m really upset and don’t know how to handle it at the moment. I’m crying and self-stimming, barely able to regulate my body. My mind is so overwhelmed and my thoughts are so jumbled that I’m not able to calm down and work through the problems. I wouldn’t wish a meltdown on anyone. It’s exhausting and debilitating.

And when I ask how to word an email to someone, it’s not because I don’t know how to write. It’s because I’m worried about how it will be interpreted by others. There seem to be unspoken rules about what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate in different situations. And the rules always seem to be changing. I am so anxious about making sure that what I say is understood correctly, and that I understand others. I honestly can’t imagine how people will respond.

It may seem like I’m “neurotypical,” but that’s only because I’ve learned so many ways to cope with the world around me. There are still so many reasons for why I need extra help. Please don’t brush off my struggles, no matter how “typical” they might seem. I may be old enough to be an adult, but I’m definitely still learning how to handle “adulting.”

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As I’m writing this, I’m on the verge of a meltdown. My chest feels so tight, and at the same time, it feels like it wants to burst with emotions.

Stress, pain, sadness and anger, all these feelings. I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to hit things. And with all of this, I don’t know what triggered it.

I’m lying in my bed with the blanket over me and my head popping out. My hands won’t stop shaking. I’m getting short of breath. My mind’s running faster than ever, but it feels like my world is in slow motion. I hate meltdowns. They are scary.

The things I say and do aren’t me. When I’m at that point of no return, I feel like I’m out of my body watching everything I say and do to the ones I love. I’m saying “Why?” Why am I saying that? Why am I hurting the ones who love me?

Here are some things that have helped me when I feel a meltdown coming on:

I text whoever is in the house to please leave me alone and give me time to calm down. I also send a photo with “meltdown in progress” on it.

My mother will open the door a little and ask if there is anything around me that could possibly be used to hurt myself or anything around me. If the answer is no, she will say, “OK, I love you. Come out when you can.”

I have my light off. Wrapped in my blanket, I will watch something I like or listen to music or play a game.

Set up a plan for when a meltdown happens so everyone in the household knows. Set up a place just for you if you have to keep stuff there that will calm you. And just let the meltdown cool down.

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