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OPINION: World Autism Awareness Month: Vivre la différence

The Wenatchee World - 4/13/2019

April 12-- Apr. 12--My son Luke came up for the weekend to check out The World's annual WenCon event. Luke is an artist who enjoys mythical characters and appreciates those who can create superheroes with a stroke of a pencil, or through digital mastery.

Some would call Luke a "geek," or "nerd," or any of the other names "mainstream" people assign to those who don't fit into a tidy box. And Luke has been called all of those things and worse over his 26 years of life.

Luke is autistic, or, more specifically, he is on the "autism spectrum" and is officially diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

I mention Luke this weekend to recognize that April is World Autism Awareness Month. Those of you who have an autistic child don't need a reminder to be aware because you live with it every day.

The thing about autism is that the "spectrum" is wide. Luke is what some refer to as "high functioning," so we have been fortunate that our challenges over the years have paled compared with those struggling with more severe kinds of autism.

Some of the symptoms are universal across the spectrum. They include high sensitivity to noise, or touch and smell. Other symptoms may include an inability for role playing, or ability to "read" people, or expressions, repetitive behavior, etc.

On the flip side, there are "symptoms" I wish we all had. Luke can't lie, for example. If you ask him a question you will get a direct answer -- though it may not be the answer you wanted.

I recognized that early on and would use it to my advantage. Luke's sister Lacey is 13 months older, so if I wanted to know what happened while I was gone, I'd simply ask Luke.

"Don't say it!" his sister would interrupt, giving Luke one of her stares.

"Lacey broke a vase and threw it in the trash outside," Luke would say. "Sorry, Lacey."

I got a call from the principal of Luke's elementary school one morning asking if I could come to his office. His name was Clint and he stood more than 6-feet-5 inches and looked like the former football player that he was.

When I arrived, Luke was in the office and Clint asked Luke to tell me what happened.

"Well," Luke began. "This girl asked me how she looked and I told her she could use some liposuction. Then, she started crying and I got sent to the principal's office."

Turns out, Luke had recently read an article on liposuction and was trying to be helpful. To this day, I don't think he understands why she started crying.

Then, there is Luke's photographic memory. Luke could identify the flag of every country when he was 5 years old. We were down in San Diego one Christmas and there was a tree in the hotel lobby that was decorated with every flag in the world.

Luke was 6 at the time and asked the young man behind the counter if he could have the flag from Estonia.

"Which one is that?" the young man asked.

"Don't you know which one Estonia is?" Luke replied. "It's at the top. The blue and black one."

One year, Luke and I attended a banquet that featured Kim Peek, who was the real-life character from the Rain Man film, with Dustin Hoffman. Peek had memorized more than 12,000 books, word-for-word, including the Bible and Book of Mormon. And if he'd been to your town, he probably memorized your phone book.

One of his favorite party tricks was to tell you who your next door neighbor was.

Peek died 10 years ago at age 58 in Salt Lake City. He was classified early as an "idiot savant," a term he and his father worked to dispel.

"You don't have to be handicapped to be different," he would say. "Everybody is different."

Luke is officially "disabled," a term we assign to keep us all in certain categories. He will always have trouble in a workplace or social setting because he doesn't understand "office politics." He recently lost a job at a small retail store because he was too honest with a customer who wanted to know about a certain product.

"I wouldn't buy it," Luke told the customer, much to the dismay of his boss.

Fortunately, the workplace is changing today and Luke's significant digital skills provide him an opportunity to create his own work environment. He lives independently in Eugene, Oregon and we talk every night. My hope is that I live long enough to make sure he has the same opportunities I have had in life.

Luke has been a gift and I'm so proud of the man he has become.

Jeff Ackerman can be reached at 665-1160 or at ackerman@wenatcheeworld.com.

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(c)2019 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com

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