April is Autism Awareness Month and, as many of you who follow this blog know, Brandy and Val are pet therapy dogs who work with children who have ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder. We blog from time to time about the activities we do with the kids and last year we provided a bunch of links about information on autism in our first Autism Awareness Month post. Along the way, people have interviewed us about how we help and if we’ve seen progress; I can categorically say we do. I always wonder, though, if more couldn’t be done to socialize the kids, what goes through their minds and how complex their thoughts are (or aren’t).
This past Wednesday, I was completely blown away by a lecture I went to sponsored by The New York Times. Called “Changing the Face of Autism” the discussion revolved around two men, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, who are the subjects of a new documentary by Academy Award winning producer-director Gerardine Wurzburg. Tracy, an advocate for people with disabilities and his friend Larry, also an advocate in addition to being an artist, happen to have autism. They see their mission as one of ”mopping up audiences’ old beliefs about autism” (Larry’s words) and they want to emphatically state that:
- Even though they are non-verbal, they HAVE THOUGHTS AND IDEAS just like those who speak. They are just unable to express them through speaking
- They are very aware of the uninitiated’s views on autism and people with autism. They are extremely frustrated and deeply affected by it.
- People should be defined by their passions not their disabililites
Larry and Tracy were lucky enough to have found programs that enabled them to learn to type, thereby allowing them to communicate freely with the rest of us. With today’s technology, including voice activation software, the audience was able to see and hear their thoughts as they typed them. Their eloquence and sense of humor is amazing and their thoughts on what needs to be done in terms of autism awareness, expansive. They also made mention that the iPad is starting to revolutionize how non-verbal people communicate. There’s an app for that!
The president of the Autism Society of America, Lee Grossman, was also on the panel and what really struck me after listening to Larry, Tracy and Lee was the realization there are a lot more people with autism that are not being given the opportunity to be productive citizens solely because they are non-verbal. Lee elaborated that it is unknown how many non-verbal people can function at high levels because programs and opportunities like Larry and Tracy’s aren’t widespread. He believes that it is incumbent upon us as a society to find ways to recognize the talents of this population group so that they can obtain jobs and make meaningful contributions to their communities.
I was so saddened to think how many ASDers are shut out of having an active life, how aware and frustrated many of them are. With so many programs, a grass-roots effort to change the way we look at remedying the circumstances is being glossed over due to lack of funding. Tracy commented that, as a young boy he knew he was different and that “not being able to show people I understood what was going on around him was a jail sentence, so I would throw tantrums.” How heartbraking.
Lucky for us that Tracy is free from his jail and in addition to promoting the movie (which is a MUST if it hits your city) he mentors students with autism at his old high school. He and Larry have undertaken a truly worthy mission and we need to help them change the face of autism. For more information, please visit the Autism Society website and absolutely check out the WRETCHES & JABBERERS website where you can also find links to Larry and Tracy’s blogs.
Do you have experience working with ASD children or adults? Are you personally affected by someone with ASD? We’d love to hear your story. Please comment. Our mission at Brandy and Val, LLC is “to do good where good is needed” and it is through our pet therapy participation and sales from our children’s board books and toys that we hope to benefit the lives of children and animals.