Living Our Own Autism Story

At the start of Project Lifesaver, I asked local nursing homes if my officers could sit in their secure facilities and just observe the tendencies and behaviors of their residing patients with Alzheimer’s. It was here where I gained much of my insight about the people we serve; most notably was that while these individuals had reduced cognitive function, they were not stupid, and they were on a mission to get what they wanted.

Many would watch the staff as they moved from room to room, observing the code to the cipher locks, so they could later leave too. And of course, there were always the “door testers,” who would jiggle each knob they came across hoping to find one unlocked and would quickly take advantage of any that were – no matter where the door led them. Most notorious, though, was “the greeter,” who would hold open the door and welcome the guests, only to quickly escape through what once was the locked entryway.

As time continued on, routine interactions with clients became our source for knowledge – all of these experiences deemed more beneficial than what one could ever learn in a book, pamphlet, or training course, which were rarely available to first responders at this point in time, and in some instances, continue to be today.

Soon after launching Project Lifesaver, at the request of the Proffitt family, who shared their story earlier this month, we began serving those with autism, who we learned also had a propensity to elope. We were not able to conduct the same type of observational study as we had done to better understand our aging client base, but our direct interactions with individuals on the spectrum and their families continued to be our source of understanding and knowledge.

When meeting someone with autism, you only meet that one person, but what better way could one come to understand this condition than building relationships and bonds with those who live it each day?

Each person with autism – just as any human being, neurotypical or otherwise – is different from the next, but through interactions, you quickly learn that many have very similar commonalities. Many have behaviors that are triggered by loud noises and other stressors. Quite a number of these individuals have difficulties with communication and struggle with social interactions. Each has their own interests, difficulties, and way of life.

These real-life lessons were very insightful, especially in our line of service, but never did I expect this knowledge to come full circle and become useful within my own personal life.

More than a decade after being introduced to autism, a diagnosis hit a little closer to home.

Jean and I welcomed our youngest granddaughter into the world in 2009. As she grew from infancy and through her toddler years, it became apparent that something was just not quite right. Her behaviors were just not typical of most children… her doctor just chalked it up to a bad case of the terrible twos.

By the age of four, her behaviors had worsened. We knew the doctor’s original diagnosis was inaccurate, but even with a vast familiarity of the disorder, we had never suspected autism… That was until that very first day Jean and I saw her stimming. We urged our children to take her to a specialist, and it was then, at the age of 4 ½ that she was finally diagnosed with having Asperger’s Syndrome.

While maybe not the most appropriate word to use, we were luckier than most, as our granddaughter is considered to be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. We did not experience the same behaviors and difficulties that one may see on the more severe side of the spectrum, but her diagnosis did present its own set of challenges, both for her and the family.

I credit our experience with Project Lifesaver for our greater preparedness and ability to overcome these difficulties that we all faced.

Without judgment, it was clear that our son and his wife were not navigating the world of autism as easily as other parents have proven to do. It is a tough job, without a doubt. Parenting is hard without the added challenges autism presents. Though it was not due to a lack of trying, they had difficulties managing her stress and other behaviors, which led to an increase in meltdowns. Her Asperger’s caused her to view the world a little differently than the rest of us, and for her order, routine, and preparation was key.

By this point in time, Jean and I had met, spoke to, and heard stories from countless individuals on the spectrum and their families. We learned what problems they may have faced over their life, and what worked to help overcome them, or at least alleviate some of the difficulties involved. When we took the kids for the weekend, we began making changes in our approach with our granddaughter based on these lessons learned that we had recalled from all of our years with Project Lifesaver, and to our delight, we saw a significant change in her.

We made sure to institute schedules and discuss everything with her in advance, to help prepare her for what was to come. Bedtime was always a trying time, each night – almost certainly, bedtime routinely would turn into a meltdown. A regular occurrence for many households, for sure – but for someone with autism, it was added stress that turned bedtime into something completely unmanageable. So, 30 minutes out, we began a countdown…

“Alright, sweetie – we’re 30 minutes from bedtime.”

“20 minutes! Start wrapping up what you’re doing.”

“15 more minutes!”

“Only 10 minutes until bedtime.”

“5 more minutes until bed – time to start putting your toys away.”

And finally, when we told her it was time for bed, there was no struggle to get her to lie down and go to sleep. We also began discussing the plans for the weekend with the kids in advance, so there were no surprises and to help prepare her for what was to come. Of course, we still ran into meltdowns on the occasion that life prevented us from doing the tasks we had discussed, but those were few and between. But when she knew what to expect, she handled the day much better than she would have otherwise.

Had it not been for Project Lifesaver, our family’s transition into the autism world may not have been so seamless. Sure, autism is much more talked about in recent years than it ever was before, and some research on the internet may have helped somewhere along the lines, but it is the real-life experiences that make all the difference.

Everyone will not encounter a personal stake in any of the conditions we serve, but having that understanding is crucial. That is why Project Lifesaver is a program and not just a device. Building those relationships and experiencing first-hand will create more understanding and a more-inclusive world. Which is a goal, especially during the month of April, that we all strive for.

Autism may make these individuals different, but in no way does autism make them less.

If I am right-handed and you are left-handed, that doesn’t make you wrong. The color of each of our skin may be different, but that doesn’t make any of us any less of a human. So, the difficulties that they encounter because of their autism does not mean that they should be thought less of. It’s time we start seeing the ability instead of the disability.

Despite all the challenges and behavioral issues, our granddaughter is a blessing to our lives, and there is not a thing we would ever think of changing about her. Autism or not, she is perfect to us, and in whichever way she chooses, she will make a lasting impact on the world around her.