That was a turning point…
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.
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’
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.”
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