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Defying his diagnosis: Misericordia speaker touts success with autism

Times Leader - 1/28/2019

Jan. 28--It may be a tad ironic Kerry Magro didn't speak until he was 2 and a half -- and didn't form full sentences until he was 7 -- yet now makes a living presenting lectures. But as a kid unable to effectively express himself, turning that inability into irony was hardly motivation to overcome the non-verbal fits that marked his early days with autism.

"I would lash out because, truly, when you can't communicate with the people you care most about in this world, you lash out, having emotional outbursts," the New Jersey resident recalls of his battle with his own brain as a child. How he went from that beginning to a career of public speaking will be the crux of his presentation at Misericordia University's fourth annual Autism Speaker Series on Feb. 26.

At age 4, Magro, now 31, was diagnosed with the unhelpfully-named condition of "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified," a diagnoses previously deemed one of several types of autism. He technically stopped having that exact problem -- without any real change in symptoms -- when the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders was published in 2013. PDD-NOS became part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder, a wide variation of disorders impacting communication and behavior.

Which is one of the problems those who see autism from the outside often struggle to comprehend: Autism manifests itself in as many ways as their are cases.

"One thing we say is if you know just one individual with autism, you know just one individual with autism," he said. "Spectrum" can run from barely noticeable to barely functioning.

"People see me talk and say 'You don't look like you have autism'," Magro noted. "I say, 'What does autism look like'?"

For him, motivation to overcome his problem really began with the need to socialize in elementary school.

"I always knew I was special, but I didn't know what that meant," he recalled. "I was in second grade when I was 7, and I was with other kids more of the time, wanting to make friends and knowing I would have to interact to do that." That desire provided the impetus to stick to the many therapies his parents were arranging.

"The goal was to grow up and live independently. I'm just so happy about having to be able to overcome that, and hope I can inspire the next generation of kids so they can do the same."

Magro gained independence and then some. Along with a speaking career that recently took him to Hawaii, he has written best selling books, earned a master's degree in strategic communication and is a doctoral candidate, founded nonprofit KFM Making a Difference to host inclusion events and provide scholarships for students with autism, and consulted in the making of several movies, including 2012's "A Joyful Noise" with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah.

So yes, he is able to talk about his condition eloquently, even passionately, and no, he no longer bolts to hide under the couch when he senses a thunderstorm is coming (loud noises can trigger outbreaks in autistic children under many settings). But you don't age out of autism. "I've overcome a lot of obstacles," he said, "But I still struggle at times to overcome challenges, such as sensory-related issues, or with friends, or relations."

Still, spreading his success to others makes the struggle worthwhile. "I'm so honored to have the opportunity to continue this work. I truly believe it's pivotal. We live in the most diverse time in our history. One in five Americans currently have a disability, and one in 59 have autism.

"I hope just from this talk that I'm able to not only spread awareness, but to spread education on how you may be different but not less."

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

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(c)2019 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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