My sister, Lisa Brown, has a weekly column in the Longview, Texas magazine CHARM. She is truly one of the funniest women I’ve ever known and her son, (my nephew) Zack Zanardi, is also a funny, talented young man who just happens to have Aspergers Syndrome. The following is Zack’s story, with a forward by Lisa.
Forward: Most of you that have read some of my stories in CHARM know that I tend to find humor in almost every aspect of my life. I figure if you can’t laugh at least 9 or 300 times a day something is really off balance in the universe. The following story was written by a young man who has the same type of humor as me, a college graduate and one of the hardest working people I know. My original plan was to write an article about how individuals (or families) deal with an autism diagnosis, but then it occurred to me, “Maybe it would help even more to give a personal perspective straight from the source”. This is a personal glimpse into the life of someone who has always been considered a bit different, and his journey to be true to who he was, and at peace with who he wasn’t. My fondest wish is that this story will give hope to any parents out there dealing with an autistic child, and to keep in mind that this amazing young man didn’t say his first complete sentence until the age of four (and I know this for a fact because I was there). This is my son.
My name is Zack. I may have a hard time coming up with the right words to say to someone, I may not look directly into your eyes when we talk to each other, I may be a little compulsive (I lied, I’m very compulsive) and I may come across as apathetic at the worst times. Or, I could have saved a few words and just said that I’m autistic. I didn’t even know about this condition until after I started college. However, I knew I was “off” long before I started college. Before starting elementary school, around either preschool or kindergarten, it was tough for me to communicate with anyone. I only know this because that is what my parents told me. It’s tough for me to recall my first couple of years in school. I was told that I would often repeat the last thing spoken to me, not because I was a jerk, but because it was the only response I could think of. When I enrolled in elementary school, supposedly I was told I wouldn’t make it far without special education. So, up until high school I would be pulled out of class either to take a test, or just to talk to special education teachers.
I had my problems, but weaknesses and strengths go hand in hand. I learned the full alphabet before I turned one year old by watching “Wheel of Fortune.” The only way I could possibly explain this is that I’m able to retain information very quickly. “Wheel of Fortune” was the most fascinating thing to me on TV as a baby. This little quirk helped me develop my reading and spelling skills faster than most of the other kids in my classes, so I guess I had that going for me. But having good reading skills didn’t exactly translate to “social butterfly”, and “everyone will like you regardless of who you are.” All my life I’ve had a bit of an awkward personality. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, so it was tougher for me to stand up for myself when I was bullied. And I’m pretty sure that’s why I was asked to write this article; to address how I managed to get through some of life’s basics when you’re autistic.
Despite how I was treated, I always stayed true to myself. I wasn’t going to conform (mainly because I couldn’t see myself as anything other than a dork that played a lot of video games, and watched wrestling and anime). I’m not a hermit though; I did hang out with friends and went on dates when I had the chance. As long as I could be me, and not a vision of what someone else wanted me to be, I was content with life and its challenges. I didn’t want my family, or my teachers to dumb down anything for me my entire life. I mentioned earlier that I stopped going to special education classes when I started high school. That’s because I wanted to see if I could do it. Simple as that. I appreciate what the special education teachers did for me; however, I couldn’t let them hold my hand for the rest of my life. My mother understood this, and respected my decision. I’m sure she could have insisted that I receive special education assistance. But she didn’t. I think we both had to see how well I did on my own. And lo and behold, I graduated high school without special education classes. And I didn’t stop there, I also got my Associate of Arts degree on my own, and now I’m currently seeking my Bachelors Degree.
The moral of this story is that autistic people may have their weaknesses and setbacks, but they also have their strengths. People shouldn’t assume how far someone with autism can go in life; let them see how far they can go for themselves. Not saying special education isn’t completely necessary. Just give them the free will to decide how much special education assistance they need. And never, ever let them feel like they need to be a completely different person. Embracing their strengths and interests can help them more than you think. I could say more, but it’s tough to generalize this subject because not everyone is like me, or has a family like my family. So if you want more advice, or more elaboration on what I’m saying right now, you can e-mail me at ZackZanardi@letu.edu.
(UPDATE from Ann-Marie: When Zack was in elementary school in the early 1990’s, many teachers still didn’t know how to handle high-functioning autistic children. Despite the fact that he is (and always has been) a very bright, intelligent person, while in California Zack was placed in a Special Ed class full of severely mentally challenged children. Luckily my sister moved to Texas where a great group of teachers saw Zack’s potential. He thrived in that Texas school, got involved in theater classes, and ultimately received his Associate of Arts degree. Zack is continuing his college education working towards a teaching degree; his goal is to become a Special Education teacher.)
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UPDATE from Zack’s mom, Lisa Brown:
Yesterday I gave my son Zack a ride to Hudson PEP Elementary…I hadn’t been around a school on a “first day” in YEARS..let me put it this way… the last time was when Taylor Swift was a toddler and hamburger meat was $2.00 a package.
I casually pulled up to the school and Zack got out… and then it hit me….my son was walking into the school to STUDENT TEACH.
As many of you know, Zack is Autistic. I was told that he would never make it in “regular” school. We weren’t even sure if he would ever be able to carry on a conversation with anyone. But you know what? No one should EVER be able to tell you what a young child can or cannot do.
Looking back I know that there were A LOT of challenges…bullies…awful teachers…BRILLIANTLY WONDERFUL teachers..struggles and mind blowing TRIUMPHS…
Zack, however, has always and will always be the very best that he can be…and for some very lucky young kids out there he will recognize himself in how they’re perceived and he will make a difference in their life.
My reason for sharing this is to just remind you all during these early school days to always fight for your kids…listen to them even if they insist on talking to you during LOST and you know that if you even miss 7 seconds of the plot you’ll never know what’s happening the rest of the season (I told you this was a long time ago).
I cried all the way to my office on Monday…I won’t ever forget the site of Zack walking into that school…and remembering how he looked when he was 7 walking into his first big challenge…my gosh…I’ve cried so much these past few years I’m surprised I’m not perpetually dehydrated…and you know…..proud.