By Ryan Litchfield, Self Advocate and Student Intern at Autism Resource Central
Being diagnosed with full blown autism at the age of two, doctors didn’t think I would ever thrive in a competitive society. While prior to my diagnosis I was learning how to walk, crawl, and speak about 20 to 40 basic vocabulary words. However, I lost those 20 to 40 basic vocabulary words I learned as for some reason my voice disappeared, and nobody had a clue as to why. There were people that loved me no matter what had happened to me, they put forth their best efforts in helping me to break past the obstacles that I had in my life with the fact that my voice disappeared.
During my early childhood years, I underwent early intervention services which professionals worked with me in order to avoid additional developmental delays that autism may have produced. However, the form of therapy that in my opinion has truly changed my life for the better was Applied Behavioral Analysis. My ABA therapist worked intensely with me for about twenty five to forty hours a week at my house, and over the years I have learned that since early childhood I have developed a hard work ethic that factored into helping me to find my voice again.
Schooling was a challenge in the earlier years of my life as I simply was not aware of my surroundings as I had challenges with learning and had conflicts with forming friendships. Naquag Elementary school was a struggle as I was hypersensitive to loud noise, especially at recess time, or even when the classroom got too loud in general. During that time I was distant from my peers not because I was disinterested of them, but because I was uncomfortable with the fact that I did not understand how to interact with peers my own age which is why I felt lonely. On the positive side, I was starting to speak, but I needed intensive aide support and help from the general education and special education teachers as I struggled to advocate for myself.
Central Tree Middle School got a little bit better for me in regards to forming friendships. However, when I followed people around trying to form friendships, they thought I was “stalking” them. I guess you could say I was like Casper the Friendly Ghost, when he tried making friends, he said hello and the people he met fearfully called him a ghost and ran away. In a sense, I could understand that the reason this happened to Casper was because he was different. While I perceive the world differently in my own eyes, I do share the same interests and thoughts with others who don’t have autism. I played the alto saxophone in the school band and took part of the math club. Taking part in these activities showed that I was making an effort to interact and communicate with peers my own age despite the fact it was very uncomfortable for me. Sadly, eighth grade was troublesome as I found out my grandmother had cancer, and I started to build up on more negative emotions than positive emotions which made my transition to high school very difficult.
Ninth grade was the hardest year I experienced at Wachusett Regional High School. The beginning of my high school years turned for the worst as my grandmother died of cancer, and because I was distressed at the time, the people on the IEP team were uncertain whether I would manage to turn things around to stay at the high school as I was very close to being placed in a separate school. Friendships were also difficult for me at the beginning and the end of high school, I felt myself losing more friends than gaining them, but I was not going to quit. However, knowing that I have a hard work ethic and realizing all the obstacles that I have faced and eventually have overcome, I was determined to turn things around. In fact, they did. I was getting A’s and B’s the next couple of years at my high school, I was involved in National Honor Society as well as volunteering at my local church, and junior year is when my voice got stronger. One day during my junior year, the speech and language pathologist I worked with asked me if I wanted to go speak to an elementary school in my town. I said yes, and I did, and I found my voice to advocate and support people with special needs, especially autism. Sharing my story as well as personal experiences over the last three to four years since high school to schools, board of selectmen, and to public safety have resulted in me becoming an autism advocate and a special needs advocate. I have even been involved in internships in early childhood centers within local districts working with applied behavioral analysis professionals because autism is my specialty and something that is of interest to me. In June of 2013, I graduated from Wachusett Regional High School and went on to Assumption College to major in human services and rehabilitation studies and minor in psychology.
Assumption College has changed my life for the better. The transition to college was successful as I have built on relationships with peers and my grades were fantastic, getting A’s and B’s. I also became involved with the Assumption Disability Awareness Promotion Team (ADAPT) by helping them with events and fundraisers to promote disability awareness on campus. However, during my second semester of freshman year, I had a grand mal seizure which forced me to not only withdraw from a course on campus, but it also forced me to give up my driving privileges for six months, and this was back in March of 2014. What is interesting to note is that this is not the first seizure I had. Back when I was diagnosed with autism, I also had petit mal seizures, which involved losing consciousness and not being aware of my surroundings for at least several seconds, especially with the fact people were trying to talk to me. Despite having this medical condition, I was still able to get a full time job during the summer prior to my sophomore year at the bookstore which involved pay. However, it required the efforts of my family and friends to drive me during this difficult time.
Sophomore year has been the strongest year of yet. In fact, I became seizure free and in September of 2014 I got my driving privileges back, and I have been seizure free for over a year now. In addition, in March of 2015, Sue Loring, the director of Autism Resource Central, was at Assumption College to see my former ABA therapist and I speak about our personal experiences with autism at a Light it Up Blue Event. I was ecstatic when Sue Loring met me for the first time because I was very interested in working for her at Autism Resource Central. Eventually, I called her, interviewed with her, and she took me on as an undergraduate intern. In addition, I also landed a part time job this summer on campus at the continuing education office as well as a “per diem” summer job at the bookstore again. Finally, in regards to my academics, this spring 2015 semester I was very close to a 4.0 GPA as I pulled off a 3.95 GPA for the spring 2015 semester. I am very proud of all of my accomplishments and I am also proud of all the obstacles I have faced and have overcome throughout the years. I am both grateful for this incredible journey hopeful that it will continue. My mother considers me as a miracle, and I consider myself a triumph over all the presumptions people had about me in the past, especially with the fact they thought I couldn’t find my voice or even function at all in society.
I will conclude this blog by just sharing my experiences of working at Autism Resource Central over the past couple of months, and I started this internship in April of 2015. First off, I will be honest and say that I love working under the direction of Sue Loring, and I have greatly appreciated getting to know all the staff members that are involved in Autism Resource Central. I feel like I am part of a family with all these people, sharing laughter and also supporting each other in times of need. Some of the tasks I currently take on involve working on PowerPoints for upcoming events or for Sue, making phone calls to professionals and organizations in order to update our databases full of resources that we can provide to families, and attending meetings with Sue and with her colleagues to gain information on autism advocacy and supports in the state of Massachusetts. Recently, I have attended an Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts meeting with Sue and a colleague of hers to gain information about critical issues that are going on in regards to supporting individuals on the autism spectrum.
For those families and friends with loved ones on the autism spectrum, my four words to you are the following: Hope, Laugh, Love, and Pray. Hope for the best, laugh during the good times, love individuals for who they are as a person, and pray that at least some form of success will come knocking at the door!