By Myles De Felicis
Imagine your child never telling you he loves you. Staring into space, plugging your ears, knocking over household objects. These are some of the characteristics of autism.
Each generation, parents have children diagnosed with a disability and hope to seek additional help to learn how to raise them well. Children with autism often have trouble socializing and making relationships with people.
My father Gene and my mother Julie shared their advice about how they lovingly raised my autistic brother Tanner De Felicis.
My parents said that when he was two years old, he cried around adult laughter and loud sudden noises. Juile said Tanner used to where headphones to loud events like birthday parties or church.
Gene said he didn’t think my brother had a disability, he thought maybe he had sensitive hearing. “When we took him to have his hearing checked at the doctor’s office, the doctor said, ‘We believe your son is autistic, but we want him to see a specialist to confirm that.’ And that’s when he went to see Nancy Brill, the leading pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City, California. She diagnosed Tanner with autism between the ages of two and two and a half years old.”
Gene said that in order to communicate with Tanner during his childhood, he would have to point at his eyes when speaking to him. “He did not naturally look you in the eye, he’d look at different parts of your face. When you spoke to him, you’d have to point to both of your eyes and tell him ‘Tanner right here.’ ”
Gene said this method took a lot of patience since he had to tell his son 3 to 5 times to make eye contact, but once he made eye contact he would hear every word. But when it came to being in a noisy environment, Gene knew his son would act out.
“I knew that was going to happen, and that situation would present itself. So I stayed by his side the whole time,” said Gene. “Eventually I would naturally be in that mode waiting for something happen to intercede for him. I had to find a way to communicate with him everything was going to be okay.”
Tanner’s autism also made it difficult for him to express himself. Juile said when my brother was three years old, she would ask him what he did in school and he would not answer back. “He could not voluntarily say things like ‘Hi Mom’ or ‘I love you.’ He was in this own world and it was hard to get his attention.”
Gene said when Tanner was in the first and second grade, he couldn’t communicate on the same level of the other kids his age. “You had to learn how to communicate with him, speak so he’d understand you, and listen to what he was trying to tell you. I have written down a phone message of him saying ‘being in the blue’ three times, and that meant he was doing good in his class,” he said.
“So you had to be very patient, focused and honestly you just had to really love him. I was very protective, but I invested all my time into him when I was at home, and made him feel safe and loved,” said Gene.
From the beginning of Tanner’s life, my parents were concerned about how his autism would affect his future.
“What worried me the most back and then was that the other kids in school would tease or harm him because of his autism,” said Gene. “It was a concern for me because I remembered in middle school kids could be very brutal, but fortunately the schools staff did not let that happen. He was very well protected along with all the special needs kids.
Julie said she was concerned if my brother would be able to take care of himself, and be able to socialize normally with people.
So my parents thought it would be wise to put him in the special education program. Julie said, “From Preschool to second grade, Tanner had a special needs teacher named Marilyn Neill from North Park Elementary School. I asked him what he did on his first day of school, and he said, ‘I colored a red car.’ That was the first time he told me about something he did in detail. At that point I felt that everything was going to be okay because if she could train him, so could we.”
Gene said, “What was great about being in the Santa Clarita Valley was that the special education program started from elementary school through college. He started his education in a speech therapy class during kindergarten.”
Julie said early intervention dramatically helped Tanner overcome his struggle’s, and also implied that even his former teachers said that he made a positive impression on them. She also said that disciplining him like any child, such as by putting him in timeout, made him mature and realize what was right and wrong.
Tanner’s elementary school teacher, Mrs. Neill, described how she teaches her second and third grade kids with special needs using a multi-modality approach. “I use auditory, visual, and tactile input to teach them. We use music and movements to help the student better understand the vocabulary and concepts involved in these songs or poems.”
“I also use a Smart Board and real objects to reinforce what we are learning,” she said. “For example, I have a menorah and kinara candle to show them, as items used by other cultures to celebrate during this time of year. We use lots of manipulatives to teach and reinforce concepts in math too,” said Mrs. Neill.
Mrs. Neill said that she works with four different school aides in her classroom. “Two aids work together with students that have more specific needs. But they all help with academic rotations, supervision during recess and lunch, and help them with social or vocational needs.”
Mrs. Neill said, “In my special education class we teach all the same academic skills that are in general education, but at a much different pace. It is also individualized for each student and their ability to practice performing these tasks and skills.”
She said parent involvement is essential since the school needs parents to support the special education program. “Meetings can last up to 3 hours or more for some students when we conduct IEPs.”
“It swells my heart when many of my former students have gone to college to become independent, productive, responsible and caring adults,” said Mrs. Neill. “And many have returned or contacted me about their accomplishments. I am so proud of them, I knew they could do it.”
Julie said, that as he got older, he really grew and learned how to be a responsible, respectful person. “All of his teachers said they loved him as their student and that he was an example of how to behave for the other special needs children. He got good grades, and was able to take some of the general education classes at his high school. But we had to pushed him to move forward because he felt afraid to do certain things such as driving. Now he drives, goes to college and loves to study history,” said Julie.
Tanner shared with me his challenges with autism and how he had been able to overcome the difficulties he dealt with during childhood.
“With autism, as you grow older one of the common challenges that we go through is being social. This can be a challenge when trying to saying the right things in a conversation,” said Tanner. “They can also have comprehension issues. For example, if someone tells you to do something it may not make sense to you, or the information is coming at you too fast to understand it.”
“What I have overcome is the noise issue. I may feel it slightly but I just got over it as I aged. But to this day I still have the challenges of looking people in the eyes sometimes. Even if I’m slightly looking away from a person, I am still able to keep a conversation going,” said Tanner.
Tanner said he noticed that every person with autism has a specific interest, such as art or looking after animals. He likes to study historical topics that are not studied enough or taught at colleges.
“I definitely believe that a person with autism has an expertise in the subject they’re interested in. It gives them the ability to favor a subject and carry it out with their future career. Not to generalize all people with autism, but some use their interests to start a conversation with people. They have an interest that they want to contribute to society,” said Tanner.
Tanner said that my parents have a made major role to help him cope with his autism and grow up.
“My father had helped me when a doctor trained him to instruct me to look at his eyes. For example, if he called me for dinner he’d point at his eyes to get my attention. My mom would discipline me in a timeout chair if I did something wrong, and both my parents would take away things that I liked to learn from that,” said Tanner.
“But I also think the reason why I improved was because I was raised in a Christian home and have been blessed spiritually by God. I was able to think for myself,” said Tanner. “And despite anything bad that has happened in my life, I am fortunate to be raise into a good family because I know that not everyone lives that way.”
My brother is interested in studying history and religious studies. His goals include getting an AA degree in history, and he’s considering getting a career at a museum, being a historian or an archivist.