April is Autism Awareness Month, and we here at The Blade will be sharing stories all month from individuals who are affected by autism. This week, the Blade reached out to Rebecca R. Brantley, who is 47 and a mother of two, but it is her 16-year-old son, Andrew Manns, who is the topic of discussion for this week. Andrew has autism, and The Blade reached out to Rebecca to get her perspective on what it's like to live with someone who is affected by autism, what it's like to care for someone with autism, and overall how it affects their everyday lives. Rebecca and her son Andrew were each born in Swainsboro and have lived here their entire lives. However, Andrew does not attend Swainsboro High School and is instead homeschooled. This is mostly because Andrew suffers frequent seizures, so he must be closely monitored by his mother.
What is autism? According to Autism Speaks, autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. There are many subtypes of autism, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.
Describing autism, Rebecca said, “Think of it as autism creating a chemical imbalance in the brain, specifically affecting the neurotransmitter systems, which control how nerve cells communicate. It's like you're at a busy intersection and the sign says you're entering a congested area; however, it's not, and you freak out.”
Individuals with autism or ASD often experience challenges in speech and nonverbal communication. According to Rebecca, although Andrew’s communication skills are affected by having autism, this does not prohibit him from still eliciting emotional reactions and responses, just as anyone else would. These occurrences are just more erratic and unpredictable in their nature.
"In the morning, he doesn't want to be bothered, but closer to afternoon time he becomes the happiest child,” Rebecca said.
Andrew was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. According to Autism Speaks, signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism. By being diagnosed early, Rebecca and her family were able to get Andrew the help he needed early.
In Andrew's case, he is in the 'low spectrum' of severity with his autism. What does 'low spectrum' mean? In Rebecca's own words, "There are higher spectrums of autism. There is a non-verbal communication spectrum, in which the affected cannot talk.” Actually, Andrew was supposed to not be able to talk or walk; however, he simply learned how. Autism affects Andrew in various other ways. Because Andrew is 'low-spectrum," it is his cognizant skills and social skills that are most heavily influenced. What this means is that in Andrew's case, his symptoms are mild, whereas, for someone on the higher end of the spectrum, their symptoms can be more severe and affect their daily lives more considerably.
Andrew also developed a form of Tourette's, in which as previously mentioned, he suffers from frequent seizures that affect his whole body. Andrew has chronic Tourette’s or Dystonia, in which his muscles contract uncontrollably all the way from his head to his feet, resulting in frequent seizures. Andrew just recently got over going through a gastrointestinal tick, which caused him various problems for the better part of 10 years. This tick caused him to be unable to hold down food for any length of time, as eating would cause him to go into pseudo-seizures. In these seizure episodes, Andrew is conscious during, so often times he would know when one was coming on. Rebecca has taught Andrew various precautions to take in the event one of the episodes occurs, such as lying down on the floor if he's not sitting down somewhere where he is comfortable. Afterwards, he is to immediately take his medicine or be given his medicine by someone who can administer it. If he's not given his medicine within a minute, his spasms become uncontrollable and emergency aid must then be given in the form of a 911 call.
Autism also affects the way in which people learn. This learning process for many people comes naturally, but for those affected with autism, it can be more arduous. Andrew's learning capacity is also affected in that his response to learning is delayed. Rebecca expanded on this saying, "He is delayed as far as speech, he is delayed in learning with school. Even at 16, he is still learning things. In our previous driving lesson, I allowed him to drive on the dirt road, and instead of referring to his ‘blinkers’ for turning, he referred to them as ‘clickers.’ I mean...blinkers do click, so he's not wrong!”
Just as with anyone in life, we often seek to be around people who share our same interests or even come from a similar background. Andrew is no different in this regard, as he has found two people similar to him that he "clings to" and enjoys the company of.
"When it comes to other kids, he's not very social with them," Rebecca said. "He's also a really big Star Wars fan. Specifically, he's a fan of baby Yoda."
Andrew also has a terrarium full of lizards that keeps his attention. "That's one thing that keeps him occupied. He really loves bugs and lizards,” Rebecca said.
Things that other people might look at as mundane can have a totally different effect on Andrew. Rebecca elaborated, "There are certain things I won't let Andrew have because his energy does boost and you can tell whenever he gets that rush--he's verbally non-stop, and I have to say okay, can it." Because energy is registered so differently in Andrew's mind, he may have meltdowns from time to time, which results in adrenaline dumps or crashes.
Something Rebecca does with Andrew in order to harness his energy naturally is allow him to vent. They have regular "sit-down" sessions in which she lets Andrew communicate his emotions and any issues he may have. This way she can teach him to not keep things bottled up because repressing all your emotions and energy doesn't mean it all goes away. Energy does not just vanish, it transforms, and most often repressed energy transforms into something more volatile in its nature.
When asked what advice there is when raising or just simply trying to communicate with someone affected by autism, Rebecca answered, “Just treat them as a normal child or normal person. Andrew still receives discipline if the situation demands it. I'm not going to show favoritism, I raised him the same way I did my oldest, who is 28 years old. If you ever meet Andrew, you would never know anything was wrong unless I told you. He's very quiet and reserved, but you would think he's just shy."
Rebecca is also an advocate for spreading awareness about autism. "I try to give advice to others if they personally come to me and ask me for advice. I try to educate them the way that I educated myself," Rebecca said. She is a part of multiple online groups that support one another and spread awareness and educate others on autism and Tourette’s. Although there is one group in particular that Rebecca enjoys, "Not an Autism Mom.”
One way in which Rebecca spreads awareness about autism during Autism Awareness Month (AAM) is by making various autism-themed jewelry, which she then donates. She also does her best to attend any autism-themed events that are going on; however, that has been hampered by the Covid pandemic.
How then is autism treated? The answer lies in in nurturing and fostering the best possible living environment to accommodate the affected. In Rebecca's case, she explained, "I didn't really know what was going on until he was diagnosed. I would be on my phone or laptop 24/7 googling everything, that way I would learn."
Rebecca ended by sharing some advice to others on how to deal with autism. She references a metaphor most specifically, saying, "It's like entering a jungle and you hear a lot of flies. There's a lot of obstacles in the way and you have to force yourself through them. Then you are met with dead-ends at every corner and everything is forcing you to backtrack. This forces you to rethink your approach of where you are needing to go and then suddenly, everything calms down, and you can just walk freely through the jungle." She says this metaphor pertains to both the caregiver and the affected. "It's like trekking through the jungle without a map." If you can simply allow yourself to stay patient during these ordeals, the way opens up. Finally she says "when communicating with someone who has autism, you must allow yourself to be on their level, but at the same time not allow them to take advantage of you, but you also don't want to make them feel inferior either."
Rebecca finally shouts out someone she feels parents and caregivers can go to with questions or concerns about autism. That person is Jill Scarborough, who is located off of Highway 57 across from the old skating rink.
We here at the Forest-Blade want to thank Rebecca Brantley for taking the time to attend this interview with us. We are truly so very thankful for your input and everything you continue to do to support not only your son but anyone else who is faced with similar circumstances. We wish you the very best of health and safety going into the rest of the year.