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Sitting in the gymnasium at Lebanon Middle Thursday afternoon waiting for a school assembly to begin, I watch as Trent Higdon helps the sound technician with the microphone. He's doing the mic test, making different sounds and saying different words, trying to perfect the volume.
Soon, Trent spots me with my fancy camera and reporter's notebook. He comes over to me and immediately starts asking me questions.
"Are you a newspaper reporter?"
"Is that your camera?"
He repeats his questions several times, all the while staring intently at my camera. Finally, he sits down beside me and I show him the camera, and try to explain how it works. He's completely fascinated.
And I'm equally as fascinated with Trent.
I appreciate his interest in my camera and repetitive questioning. And I'm impressed with his vocabulary level. I've never actually sat down and talked to Trent, or a child like him before.
You see, Trent has autism.
Autism is a group of complex developmental brain disorders, and people who have autism usually have a difficult time talking and expressing themselves using words. Autism can also cause people to act in unusual ways.
To try and put it simply, people with autism have a difficult time making sense of the world.
Last week, as I sat beside Trent, he was more concerned with trying to make sense of my camera.
As his classmates took their seats, Trent asked his teacher if he could leave school to see where the newspaper is made. Her answer was no, but his questions continued, until the assembly began and he was instructed to be quiet. Even then, he managed to whisper a few more questions to me.
"Is that the flash?"
"What do you do with the flash?"
As Trent's teacher told him to "shhh," I couldn't help but smile.
His genuine interest in my camera, my notebook and my profession was endearing. And, as a newspaper reporter, I admire and respect his persistence in asking me questions. He's a very special child. A child I have watched from afar for several years, but I've never had the guts to actually sit down and talk to him. I'm ashamed to admit this, but I was sort of afraid to try and interact with Trent because he has autism. Until recently, I really didn't even know what autism was, but I've had the opportunity to learn more after interviewing Lisa Nally-Martin, who not only has an autistic child, but is also organizing Marion County's first annual "Working the Puzzle for Autism" Walk, which will be held this Saturday at Graham Memorial Park in Lebanon.
I've learned that not every autistic child is the same. Some autistic children, like Trent, can talk. Others can't. Some autistic children have serious behavioral problems, others don't. And, not all autistic children possess the same symptoms.
Many people relate autism to the 1988 movie "Rain Main" where Dustin Hoffman played a character with autism who also had a remarkable math talent. But, people with autism are not all alike. In fact, they can vary widely in their level of intellectual functioning, their behaviors and their characteristics.
Today, it's estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. An estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide are affected by autism. There are probably multiple causes of autism, but no one knows for certain what causes it.
No matter the cause, it's important for all of us to try and understand more about autism, which is why I encourage you to attend the upcoming "Working the Puzzle for Autism" Walk Saturday. There will be various autism providers there to help educate people and provide a number of resources and autism awareness items. There will also be speech, physical and occupational therapists on hand, as well as representatives from the Kentucky Autism Center.
It's time for people, like me, to stop being afraid of autism.
Autism isn't something to be afraid of, but ignorance is.
More importantly, it's time we start talking more openly about autism, and the upcoming walk is a great first step.