Creating meaningful opportunities that enrich the lives of people with autism, their families and their communities.

Autistic Services Inc.

Julius Thomas
Breaks Barriers
Over the past six years, the stats for autism have continued to change, with the numbers revealing that there are more people on the Autism Spectrum then previously imagined. The next estimate is expected to raise the existing numbers to 1 in every 88th person. Autism is a neurological disorder. This means that while autism may be physiologically present in any given person, it offers no physical cues to alert us of its presence… so the only way to know that you are talking with someone on the Spectrum is by their behavior. Unfortunately, with autism acceptance not being nearly as ubiquitous as autism, behavioral cues can sometimes result in disastrous encounters.No one knows this more than Julius Thomas.

Autistic Services Inc.
The toughest years were up until Julius turned about 12 or 13.
That was a turning point…
Autistic Services Inc.
I met Julius while he was at work for Barnes & Noble. I found him in the glass foyer, leaning over a wide bin of bargain books attempting to wipe down impossible corners of a glass wall. Not only did the contortions of his body look uncomfortable, but the area he was attempting to clean looked unreachable. Yet he seemed intent on cleaning the entire area. I interrupted him with “Excuse me.” Julius relaxed his long stretch and turned around to face me. I expected the look of a man agitated by the interruption. Instead, I saw a face that was, for the most part, benign and ambivalent. I also saw a face that I remembered from somewhere, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly where.Julius stared at me as if waiting for a question or perhaps some kind of explanation for interrupting his work. I asked him about finding a specific book, but he didn’t answer me. I asked again. No answer. Just the same ambivalent expression. In the middle of repeating myself a third time, I stopped. Now I remember: I’ve seen him at Autism Services. This man has autism.

Had I not recalled Julius’ face, I cannot say for sure if I would have concluded that he had autism. I probably would have just walked away, perplexed or put-off. To my eyes, Julius had the appearance of anyone else at the bookstore. He seamlessly blended in with his environment. Actually, he blends in more than anyone else since he is nonverbal and doesn’t exactly call attention to himself. While so many others might chat away on their cellphones inside a quiet bookstore, Julius will sit there in perfect silence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he is not capable of calling attention to himself when he wants to.

Julius

Years ago, Julius had a reputation for using “creative methods” to get the attention of other people. The discreet nature of autism, coupled with Julius being nonverbal, exacerbates the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication when such methods are used. Julius’ father, Mr. Milton Thomas, knows this all too well. “Julius would do things and make people angry. I had to stop a guy from going up-side Julius’ head. I tried to explain that he had autism, but the man didn’t care.” As Mr.Thomas recalls these close encounters with Julius, I cannot help noticing the unique compatibility of his hulking size with his soft voice. I imagine that both were useful in assuaging the tempers of those on the other end of Julius’
attention-getting antics.

While so many others might chat away on their cellphones inside a quiet bookstore, Julius will sit there in perfect silence.

Julius was three years old when his parents discovered that he had autism. The discovery came while Julius attended day care and the teachers noticed his unresponsiveness to the other kids. Mr. Thomas and his wife were notified and soon after came the diagnosis; marking the long and arduous road of Julius transforming from a young boy who worked the nerves of the public, to a man who now works for and with the public.

Breaking the Communication Barrier
Behavior challenges are expected with all children. However, in the case of autism and a kid like Julius, the challenges can be heightened by severe communication barriers. Even if the child is verbal, he or she may still struggle with knowing how to convey what it is that they are feeling. If they are nonverbal, the situation can seem hopeless for the parent and child alike. Mr. Thomas candidly remembers his struggles with reaching his son: “We had no way to get through to him. He didn’t respond to gestures. So it was frustrating for him. He was so frustrated with trying to communicate, he would break the windows in the house. Every week I was buying new windows or fixing the walls. I thought I’d have a nervous breakdown.”

“The toughest years were up until Julius turned about
12 or 13. That was a turning point.”
Mr. Thomas says.

 

Julius attended Autism Services, Inc. first, as a student, and now, in adulthood, he continues his participation in their various programs. Over these years, he has benefited from occupational therapy and communication intervention strategies, enabling him to find productive ways of communicating with others. Julius now uses a combination of formal sign language combined with his own hand prompts to alert others as to what he wants. “If he wants candy or something like that, he’ll point to it and then hold up fingers letting me know how many he wants.” Mr. Thomas says. “You would think it would be easier for him to just pick it up, but he won’t touch something until after I buy it. That’s just how he is.”

Julius also participates in Autism Services’ Arts Work Program. Brian Kavanaugh was one of three teaching artists who helped conduct the program and worked with Julius for over three years. Though Brian missed Julius’ “unconventional years” he smiles when he admits that he has heard about them. “Julius will still have fun with people. He will still do things to get our attention, but it’s fun stuff. He’ll clap his hands or he’ll put his hands on the top of your head and just kind of move your head.”

The Arts Work Program plays an important role in autism, since it provides a visual means of communication, clueing us in to what they are thinking and seeing. Brian has identified that Julius has an instinct for faces. “Sometimes to start off a project, I’ll draw a circle and see what the guys will do with it. Some of the guys will just fill it in with a color. Julius always turns the circle into a face.” Brian walked to a cabinet and pulled from one of the drawers a growing collection of artwork done by Julius – all of them faces. “Actually, he always draws faces. It’s always an African-American, so I’m not sure if these are self-portraits; but he seems to want to make something he can relate to.”

It’s possible that the faces are portraits of Julius’ father. With the most challenging years now behind them, Mr. Thomas speaks of the unique ways that Julius will form a close bond. “Anytime I go to my study room to read or work on something, Julius will sit at the stairs outside my room. He’ll just sit there the whole time. He’s been doing that for years. He also picks out my clothes for me. He’s been doing that for about eight years. I might change my mind about what I want to wear, but he’ll want me to wear what he picks out. He’s tough on Sunday mornings because I get dressed up for church. He wants to see everything before I leave.”

Finding the Way Home
Julius is now 31. He has exchanged his habit of breaking windows with washing them. Having heard of his compulsive years, I decide to go back to Barnes & Noble to see Julius as he is now. This time I decide not to bother him. I come back later and find him sitting in silence on a sofa chair, a perfect chance for me to get his attention. “Hello Julius.” He hears my greeting and looks up at me. I didn’t expect him to recognize my face from the last encounter. Although his expression is still ambivalent, he returns the greeting by holding up his hand and dramatically flapping his fingers so that they nearly touch his palms.

I take the seat next to him and begin scribbling notes for my article. My attention is on Julius. His attention is somewhere else. He sits quietly and looks around. I wonder what is going through his head, but do not bother to ask since he has no way of answering. After a few minutes, I stand up to leave. Julius looks my way and raises a hand that remains upright and stationary while he flaps his fingers to say goodbye.

“We communicate now through sign language and he’s gotten better at understanding gestures.” Mr. Thomas says. “Of course, he doesn’t do things like other kids, but he’s doing much better than before. He helps out around the house and will sort out his own clothes. He folds and irons his own clothes. He washes the dishes. Things like that.”

Julius was not home at the time of the interview. Up until now, I had wrongly assumed that he lived in a group home. “So Julius still lives with you?” I ask. Mr. Thomas nods his head and says, “Yes.” He pauses and I resist the temptation to fill the space with another question. I can tell that he has something else to say. Or perhaps he’s replaying in his mind the many years and the long road he’s travelled with his son. Those long years are summarized in his closing words, “Yeah, Julius lives with us. He has come a long way. He always seems to find his way home.”

Autistic Services Inc.
We communicate now through sign language and he’s gotten better at understanding gestures. Autistic Services Inc.

Julius

self-portrait by Julius Thomas

 

Autistic Services Inc.

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