It’s estimated, by the Centers for Disease Control, that in the U.S., one in 59 children are on the autism spectrum, with roughly 200,000 cases diagnosed per year.
Defined by the Autism Society, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, Owensboro Times spoke with two families raising sons with autism. Both Misty Harney’s son, Hunter, 21, and David and Holly Johnson’s son, Matthew, 17, were diagnosed with autism as toddlers.
Misty said when Hunter and his twin sister were young, his sister learned things so quickly Misty thought, perhaps, “girls learn faster than boys.”
“When the twins were 6 months old, I was working at Wendell Foster and they had a daycare for the employees,” Misty said. “As I worked there the next few years, I watched all the other little boys pass Hunter by in what they were learning.”
Holly said Matthew hit a couple of predicted milestones just as he should have, but others just didn’t come. Because Holly hadn’t been around a lot of other children before having her own, she wasn’t sure if this was cause for alarm.
Once both boys entered school and received the diagnosis of autism, which allowed them to address puzzling behaviors head-on, their lives began to flourish.
Each family credits the excellent education provided to their sons by Burns Elementary and Middle Schools, as well as the continuum of education provided at Apollo High School, for the growth of their children. The parents said the schools have enabled their sons’ varying interests rather than limiting them through a diagnosis of autism.
“For a kid that specialists told me might not ever be able to read or ride a bike, Hunter has two jobs now and dreams of one day getting married and having children of his own,” Misty said.
Hunter does not allow autism to slow him down. Aside from his two jobs, Hunter also volunteers at the Owensboro Humane Society walking the dogs and does Special Olympics track and lifts weights at the gym twice a week.
Matthew, like Hunter, lives a life similar to his peers. He recently obtained his driver’s license and often runs errands for David and Holly, to pay bills or purchase groceries. When school lets out, he takes a few moments on the phone to tell his mom about his day before leaving the parking lot. He also works, part-time, in his father’s medical practice doing administrative work that will lend itself to his career choice of computer science.
Holly said Matthew is extremely well-organized and balances his checkbook once a month and has an uncanny ability of information recall. David said this is most evident in home improvement projects. Matthew reads the owner manuals of appliances, fixtures and other hands-on activities. In fact, he often is the problem solver with many questions on home maintenance, at times informing David how to perform the tasks correctly.
As far as for Hunter and Matthew’s futures, both of the boys’ parents are optimistic.
“God trusted me to be this wonderful man’s mother,” Misty said. “He gets up every day wanting to know what he can do to help others. If his dream is to have a family, whether his wife has a disability or not, I will do everything I can to help him achieve that dream. God has always held Hunter in his hands and I can’t wait to see what the future holds”.
David and Holly say they’ve been asked if they would change Matthew or his diagnosis if they could. The two agreed that Matthew, like their other two children, is perfect just the way he is. They did not limit his abilities based on a perceived disability, and say he’s risen to his own high standards through hard work and perseverance, with continued encouragement from his parents and siblings.
These families are proof that adulthood can be as bright for their children on the spectrum as it is for all of their children.