Friend on the Floor

By MATT MAUS

I had a vague notion autism was on the rise in the United States. You can’t help but hear about it. Still, it wasn’t until I took a sincere interest in the disorder that the prevalence of autism truly shocked me.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are the fastest growing serious developmental disabilities in the U.S. with 1 in every 88 kids (and 1 in every 54 boys) being diagnosed with some form of autism, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that number is growing. Think about it – that total is higher than the number of children diagnosed with cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined. As a result of such rapid growth, treatment for autism has struggled to keep up. 

Still, the facts about autism don’t stop the hands of time. The first big wave of children with autism is growing up. I wondered whether society is ready for them.                                                                                                      

I learned it depends on where you are on the autism spectrum. Studies indicate those who are very low functioning most likely will receive some type of supportive daily care from state and federal programs for the rest of their lives. Those on the upper-end of the spectrum, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, have much higher IQs and a far better chance of going to college, landing a job and living independently. Autism experts say those in the middle of the spectrum fall through the cracks because their level of disability does not qualify them for support services. Even so, they often can’t find and hold jobs or attend college independently.

Boone County Family Resources is involved in several new initiatives to help young adult with developmental disabilities, including autism, transition from high school to adult lives that would allow them to live as independently as possible and contribute to the community. College for Living is a partnership with Columbia College. STEP (Seamless Transition through Enhanced Partnership) is a partnership with Columbia Public Schools, Boone Hospital, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and ACT.

As I learned more about young people with autism, I couldn’t help but wish I knew someone with autism who would be willing to talk with me about his life. That’s when I remembered Isaac.

Isaac and I live on the same floor of the same residence hall at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Isaac is 18 and a full-time student who happens to have autism. Above is a picture of Isaac and me. He’s the one wearing glasses. From what I can see, Isaac is applying himself more to school in some respects than most other students, despite his challenges.

Isaac has lived most of his life in Columbia, but was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts where his father was finishing graduate school at Harvard University. Shortly after his birth, Isaac said his family moved south to Tallahassee, Florida, where his father taught history at Florida State University. In 1991, Isaac’s family moved to Columbia where his father joined the history department at MU.  

Isaac graduated from Rock Bridge High School last spring and began classes this fall at MU’s Robert J. Trulaske School of Business. His plan is to major in accountancy and geography, two of his favorite subjects. Isaac claims he has always been good in math. But it was his skills in geography that paid off in 2008 when he was in eighth grade. That year Isaac won the state Geography Bee and went on to place seventh in the nation.  

Isaac has a part-time job as an office assistant at the Scout Shop operated by the Great Rivers Council of the Boy Scouts of America. His responsibilities range from entering mail data into the store’s computer to filing, stocking shelves and working the cash register. But he might be changing jobs. Isaac said he recently interviewed for a clerk position at the library in the MU School of Law.

Another one of Isaac’s passions is baseball. His favorite team is the St. Louis Cardinals. His love for the game has extended to a lifetime goal of visiting all 30 major league ballparks. So far, Isaac has been to seven: Busch Stadium in St. Louis; Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City; Nationals Park in Washington D.C.; Comerica Park in Detroit; Wrigley Field in Chicago; Fenway Park in Boston and Target Field and the old Metrodome in Minnesota.

Isaac also has a goal shared by many young people with autism. He wants to live what most of us consider a normal life: graduate from college, snag a good job, live independently and maybe raise a family. In fact, Isaac wants even more.

“I want to make my own path in life, He said. “ It may sound kind of weird, but I want to be a leader of something.”

If there is one thing Isaac wants people to understand it’s that “autism isn’t a limit to what people can achieve.” He is certainly proof of that.

Matt Maus, a student at the University of Missouri, is an MU Service Learning  participant assigned to Boone County Family Resources. His curiosity about autism led to a friendship with a young man on his dorm floor who has a form of autism.