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Navigating life with Autism

GATESVILLE – “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

That’s the words printed on the back of a lime green T-shirt worn by 10-year-old Drew Harrell here June 15 inside the meeting room of the Gates County Public Library. From outward appearances, the youngster does not present any signs of being different from others his age. However, he and his family live daily with the fact that Drew has Autism, a spectrum disorder that includes a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

Drew’s mom, Wendy L. Harrell, is the author of a new book – “Living With Autism: Our Family’s Journey.” That book, which was formally released on June 15 at the library, takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster experienced by individuals and family members impacted by Autism, which today affects one in 59 children across the United States.

“I’d been thinking about writing this book for several years because I had so many people to tell me that with everything my family has gone through that I should write a book about those experiences,” said Wendy Harrell. “Although I’m not a writer, it just hit me one day that I needed to tell my family’s story.”

Other than the daily experiences she has as Drew’s mother, Harrell explained that additional inspiration for the book came through the fact that she has been contacted by parents of autistic children to offer insight and guidance.

Again, stressing the point that she doesn’t consider herself as a writer, Harrell used Facebook to solicit help in putting her words into print.

As it turned out, a friend from her high school days – Adrienne Dunning, formerly of Aulander – offered to become Harrell’s “ghost writer.”

“Over about a year and a half, I would send Adrienne my words and she would tweak them for eventual publication,” Harrell recalled. “She made my words sound better.”

The Harrell family’s life with Autism began when Drew was diagnosed at the age of two.

“It’s been a struggle with learning how to live with an autistic child,” the mother stressed. “You learn to live with the good days and the bad days. It all starts with your willingness to learn to live with a different lifestyle. Nothing prepares you for what you experience.”

As 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 Autism may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

“Each autistic child is different,” Harrell said. “We’ve come a long way with Drew since he was diagnosed. He was almost 5-years-old before he ever spoke. We’ve gone through extremely violent outbursts. On a good day, he appears very normal. Then there are days of complete meltdowns.”

Often it’s minor changes in daily life that impact her son, she said. One example came on the day of her book signing. There, Drew seemed content despite the presence of a large gathering of people and the constant chatter inside the room. However, it was the flash of a camera that affected him.

“Over time you learn those little quirks and deal with them in order to prevent a meltdown,” Harrell stressed.

Drew is enrolled in Gates County Public Schools as a Special Needs student in the third grade.

“They (teachers) are very good with him; they’re amazing,” said the mom. “They give him special training he needs.

“He’s extremely intelligent,” Harrell added about her son. “He took the EOG (End of Grade) test in the subject of English and missed only two questions. I’m extremely proud of the work he puts in as well as the work his teachers do with him.”

At school, Drew also works with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. He also sees a counselor outside of school.

As working parents, Wendy and her husband, Daniel, try to maintain a normal schedule.

“If anything gets thrown off it bothers him,” she noted.

Over summer months, when school is not in session, the Harrells find support through Trillium and EasterSeals who send specialists to their home.

And it appears that Wendy Harrell will not be the only published author in her household.

“My daughter, Madison (age 8), is writing a book about her brother having Autism,” said Harrell. “All it’s waiting on now are the illustrations. It should be ready by late summer or early fall.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Harrell’s book provides a conversation about the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows of navigating life with Autism. Aimed at other families dealing with an Autism diagnosis, this book is shared with the hope of providing a sense of support for those families, as well as a source of information from someone who is also walking that same path.

The book is available through amazon.com.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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