This feature story by Carrie Thatcher was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine. We are especially pleased to repost it at Autism Empowerment since Mitch Thatcher was our first intern in 2015 and has been a wonderful autism advocate in our local community. Cheers to Mitch and to his family!
The opening notes of Pomp and Circumstance began to blare through the crowded auditorium. Tears coursed down my cheeks. Among the stream of students in blue graduation caps and gowns was Mitch. Only a handful of us in the audience knew what a triumphal moment his walk was. No one knew he was nineteen years old, or that he was on the Autism Spectrum. To anyone else, he looked like a typical high school senior. While we sat through the talks and awards, my mind ran the years we had known before.
Mitch was a fighter from the beginning. He arrived in life nearly six weeks early, barely weighing four pounds. I remember his pediatrician looking at his tiny Yoda-esque body and saying, “He will make it. I’ve seen it before. It’s in their eyes. You can tell when you have a fighter on your hands.” In his first months, he overcame underdeveloped lungs, heart murmurs, unstable body heat, and a non-existent sucking reflex. He was champ material. As his mom I thought the worst was over when we brought him home. For two more decades, he would inspire me, teach me and conquer things I couldn’t imagine.
We had never heard of Autism or Asperger’s until we took Mitch to see a team of specialists at OHSU. At the age of two Mitch had been diagnosed with Failure to Thrive. His head circumference had stopped growing. He had difficulty swallowing solid foods. He also showed delays in crawling and walking. Over a series of multiple appointments with physicians, therapists, and specialists it was determined he had Delayed Development. On and off until he was enrolled in school Mitch would attend various therapy treatments to help close the gap on these developments. Though Autism had been suggested, it was dismissed because it was not severe enough for his age.
Fully aware of his development issues, we chose to enroll Mitch in school when he was closer to six years old. Hoping the added months would be helpful. As a social person, Mitch was adored by his teachers. He wasn’t prone to tantrums or lashing out. He kept himself safe by wearing a winter jacket at all times. The zipper pulled to the top, the hood tight. His only nervous tick was a constant twirling of the forelock of his hair. This made him an easy classroom member.
However, Mitch also wasn’t comfortable with many things, especially things you touch. The square edges of pencils, the rough paper around crayons, and the physical effort of scissors. None of these were safe for him. Over time, this put him behind in class. No amount of coaxing would encourage him. It was also becoming apparent that he liked to play alone and that routine was necessary. If he arrived at school and a substitute was there, everything fell apart. Pretty soon it became apparent to his teachers and us that private school could not offer Mitch the personal assistance he needed. It was hard to say good-bye to the safe haven he had been attending, but he found hope in the idea that his new public school would be just three blocks away. He took delight in our daily walks, and scooter or bike rides we took to get to school.
Public school allowed Mitch extra academic assistance through his Individualized Education Program (IEP). With the plan in place, Mitch was able to access special P.E. classes for gross motor skill building, twice weekly Occupational Therapy for manual dexterity, one on one pullout time for math, and daily speech therapy. I believe he spent more time out of the standard classroom than in. Mitch worked hard. In his three years, he completed the P.E. course, learned to type, improved his handwriting skill, and speech skills. He also began to explore theater.
Theater might seem like an odd choice for a person on the spectrum. All the changes, distractions, and commotion might appear overwhelming. For some, it might be. For Mitch, it was a lifeline. Mitch didn’t ask to do theater; his parents put him in it.
Our goal since his infancy was to give Mitch as normal a life as possible. We really believed that he could catch up or find a way to not be held back in life. We tried T-ball, Scouting, and Tae-Kwon-Do. None of them stuck. Theater was just another option. Mitch’s sister, Elaine, was joining Christian Youth Theater (CYT) and we determined Mitch should attend, too.
It wasn’t an instant hit. It was, however, safe.
We nudged him to stay a bit longer. On a very difficult night, when all the world was collapsing around Mitch, one young man said “Good night, Mitch.” That single act was the catalyst of hope Mitch needed. That hope carried Mitch on stage and through school. As well as in front of television cameras and even newspaper covers when his story became the inspiration for New York Times bestselling author, Karen Kingsbury’s novel Unlocked. It was quite a journey for a kid who preferred the safety of life in a zipped tight blue jacket.
As the glow from the book launch and publicity subsided Mitch was faced with high school. The double daunting task was finding a way to accomplish High School and keep his challenges in check. After some pursuit, we decided on WAVA K-12, a fully accredited online program. The flexibility allowed Mitch to work from home on his best schedule. It also gave him the complete academic experience he needed. Though it took multiple years of strenuous effort, Mitch completed all the required coursework and all the state standardized testing. For the testing, his only accommodation was a private or nearly private room. He was always the last to leave the testing room but after three years of attempts, he completed them all.
His days in theater began to wane. School requirements were overtaking him and he felt he had achieved all he could in that theater group. During his junior year, he bid theater a fond farewell. He pushed on in school. During the middle of his senior year, Mitch was given the opportunity to utilize his theater and technical skills as an intern with Autism Empowerment. From his internship he learned more about others on the spectrum, he advocated for adults on the autism spectrum at community meetings and assisted in events such as the Easter Egg Hunt for Acceptance of All Abilities.
A year has passed since Mitch walked across the stage to receive his diploma. It has been a new year of decisions and learning. Asperger’s and adulthood are a new combination for all of us. Adult employment is the prime goal at present, as is a future career as a voice over actor. Every one of these ambitions will require a different set of skills and guidelines. As an adult, Mitch will be teaching others about people on the spectrum as well as learning how to be one. We have no doubt that he will find great success in both. It will just take time.
Carrie Thatcher is a freelance writer living in Washington with her husband, Garen. They are proud parents to their son, Mitch and two daughters, Elaine and Clarissa.