Autism: Zach's Story
By Mackenzie, age 17, Michigan
"Jesus didn't give his disciples wedgies," my little brother Zachary says. He is serious. His eyes flit around his bedroom and he flicks his neck with his index fingers. Though this remark sounds deliciously random, it apparently makes sense to him.
My father looks up from Horton Hears a Who and stifles a chuckle. "No, Zach, I suppose he didn't," he says before continuing to read the book to him.
Moments like this have become routine in my household. There have been dozens of them.
For example, Zach was six when he saw a commercial for Rockstar energy drinks in which a man took a sip of the drink and let out a battle cry. For the next two years, whenever he saw Rockstar in the supermarket, he would make the noise, once almost giving an older gentleman a heart attack.
At his seventh birthday party, Zach had a meltdown and shoved his hands into the butter cream frosting of his birthday cake, throwing it all over his family and the floor.
When he was eight, he threw up all over our table after he took his first bite of Chicago pizza, all because it had minuscule specks of oregano on it that he thought was a vegetable.
My brother Zachary was born with relatively mild case of autism, a mental disorder that impedes his social and communication skills. Approximately one in every 110 children has autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined. There is no known cause of autism, and there is no cure.
At first, my parents thought that he was deaf. "[My brother] Marty noticed that he did not react to a sudden sound (like a handclap behind his back) the way he should have (with a startled reaction)," my father said. "That prompted us to wonder if he might have a hearing difficulty, so we had his hearing checked. Upon passing that test, we knew that autism was a real possibility."
He was diagnosed when he was two. "Well, we were surprised," my mom said. "We had thought he was just slower than our other kids. When people of my generation think and hear 'autistic,' they think of Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. That's what I thought of because that's all that I really knew about it."
"One of the scariest things was, when he was two or three, he could walk around, but he couldn't talk," my mom said. "If we lost track of him, he couldn't answer if we called for him. There was a complete panic until someone found him and saw that he was OK."
Although he went to classes for occupational, speech, and music therapy, Zach couldn't say even one word until he was four years old. Before he could convey what he wanted with words, he used "pecs" (pictures with photographs of common items on them) and sign language.
Zach is now 10, and has progressed far beyond what we could have imagined. For the past two years, Zach has been completely mainstreamed in school. "There are parents of autistic kids who would give anything for that," my dad says.
Even more astoundingly, he is now at or above grade level in all of his subjects. In second grade, he was reading at a fifth grade level.
I have never seen a brighter fourth grader. He zooms through his homework, and, when you're quizzing him for a test, it takes him less than a second to give you the correct answer.
I asked Zach what his favorite subject in school is. "Um, maybe learning about Michigan, our state," he said after a long pause.
But Zach's progress is not just academic. He has grown into a sweet, endearing kid. He always has his heart in the right place, and he truly cares for everyone he knows. His social skills are still progressing, but he now has play dates with neighbor kids of classmates.
Zach has actually come so far that he is occasionally asked to visit the Autistically Impaired classroom in his school to serve as a role model. Most of the children in the class don't have speech, and it's good for them to have a student in the room who is autistic but has a large vocabulary.
"Together, Zach's social skills, speech, and behavior make him an excellent student for the younger kids to model their behavior after," my mom said.
However, autism is always there. Zach has a tendency to hyper focus on toys or games, only having room to like one thing at a time. He rarely makes eye contact and fidgets constantly. He often flicks his neck or pulls his hair when he's nervous. He is rigid about things like schedules and hates surprises or change.
His future is a complete mystery. No one knows if Zach will ever be able to go to college, live on his own, get married ,or have children. But we can hope. It's all we can do, really.
Zachary never smiled much in his early years, and he doesn't much now either. "I vividly recall how he would smile from ear to ear whenever the caterpillar would appear at the beginning of Baby Einstein videos," my dad said. "It was like he was seeing his favorite friend in the whole wide world. When one of those videos was playing, distracting his attention away from it was nearly impossible. I could have literally stood on my head, and his eyes wouldn't budge."