By Caley Griebenow
When James Neff was seven or eight years old, there was an alphabet board that he used loved to play with. One day, the battery was dying, and in a fit of frustration, he threw it against the wall, leaving a hole.
While this might seem like a normal act for an angry child to do, James’ incapability to control his anger had roots in something much more complex. James has autism.
Autism is one of many disorders under the umbrella of conditions known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, which is a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism is a more severe form of ASD; it is usually characterized by lacking communication and social skills. For a family with an autistic child, they must find a balance of care and attention, while also letting their child have their own space.
It can be easy to think of an autistic kid as their symptoms, but it can take a sibling, such as junior Zoe Neff, to see the true characteristics they possess.
“He’s very sweet, very exuberant, he jumps around,” Zoe said. “Because he cannot form complete sentences, he’ll associate the word trampoline with me since we used to jump on our trampoline all the time when we were younger.”
She remembers teaching him how to count on his fingers, and was proud of him when he reached 109. It was more difficult for him to learn than other kids because he struggles to talk.
Now that James is eleven, his family made the decision to enroll him in a boarding school for children with disabilities in Madison, Wisconsin, so he can be surrounded by kids who face the same challenges as him.
This makes Zoe an only child most of the week, except for his occasional weekend visits home.
At Prospect, Zoe is disturbed by is the casualness of using derogatory words, like “that’s retarded”.
Zoe remember walking through the halls, and hearing other kids say ‘That’s so retarded,” or ask their friend “Are you retarded?” if they make a silly mistake.
“It’s so dangerous, using that word. By doing that, you dehumanize kids with disabilities,” Zoe said.
A common misconception about kids with autism is that they don’t have emotions at all, because they have a hard time clearly expressing them.
“Just hugs, he loves hugging my parents, that’s how he expresses his love,” Zoe said.
Unfortunately, because many people don’t understand people with disabilities, it can be easier to say something hurtful. Sophomore Sam Gilbertson has seen firsthand the judgements that people can make on kids with disabilities. Gilbertson has an older brother, Gus, who also has autism, and has had his own experience with hurtful judgment.
When Gus was in grade school, some kids in fifth grade bullied him by calling him stupid. However, when he was playing a game called around the world, a game about memorizing times tables, he beat his fifth grade bullies while proving he was just as capable as anyone else.
“I think [having a brother with autism] made me more aware of bullying, because I can sympathize with them,” Sam said.
Gus has not had any bullying issues since then.
Gus, who is 22, faces the similar difficulties to James. He has trouble expressing his emotions, and has a very specific comfort zone he likes to stay in.
“He has a schedule he likes to follow, and to get him to stray from that is hard,” Janet Gilbertson, his mother, said.
While he displays symptoms of autism, like not wanting to leave his comfort zone (his computer room where he can watch Deal or No Deal or use his Playstation), there is more to Gus than his disability.
He excels at swimming in the Special Olympics, where in events like the 200 IM, he wins a gold medal almost every time.
“He’s so funny when he swims,” Janet said. “If he’s winning by a lot, he’ll slow down to save energy.”
Gus also plays softball and basketball for Special Olympics, which keeps him busy. When he’s not practicing or playing games, Gus is enrolled in a class at Harper Community College to help kids with disabilities transition into adulthood.
Gus is similar to James in that he also struggles with expressing his feelings.
Instead of saying “I love you,” Gus made his sister Emma an intricate golden leaf when he was in 3D art at Prospect.
As far as the bullies of the world, while they can’t be avoided, Sam knows there is nothing wrong with his brother.
“They can’t change who they are, people with disabilities,” Sam said. “My brother is who he is.”