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Celebrating differences

Local youths with autism endure COVID-19 crisis
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
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Reece White enjoys two of his most favorite things: going out to eat with his family and worshipping together at Zion Traveler Baptist Church, where his father is pastor.

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Britt Pullen celebrates with Louisiana Tech University mascot Champ during the Special Olympics, one of his greatest joys along with MedCamps. Both events had to be canceled this year due to the COVID-19 crisis.

This month, the Autism Society of America marks National Autism Awareness Month with the new ‘Celebrate Differences’ campaign.

Designed to build a better awareness of the signs, symptoms and realities of autism, #CelebrateDifferences focuses on providing information and resources for communities to be more aware of autism, promote acceptance, and be more inclusive every day.

According to Walter Pullen, whose son Britt is autistic, this should address one of the biggest misconceptions about individuals on the autism spectrum.

“The biggest misconception in our eyes is that everyone on the spectrum is viewed as alike,” Pullen said. “But the truth is they are all so different and unique, probably more so than neurotypical people.”

Britt was 4 years old when diagnosed with autism. However, because he was born with a severe congenital heart defect and had to undergo three open-heart surgeries by the time he was 3, his parents saw his slow development as a result of the health complications he endured. It wasn’t until he saw a neurologist that the diagnosis was confirmed.

“While it’s almost shameful to admit, we were devastated,” Pullen said. “The whole life we had imagined for Britt vanished before our eyes.”

However, Britt would go on to become one the Pullens’ joys. Now 18 years old and attending Ruston High School, he leads a high-function life.

“Britt’s personality is one of our greatest joys,” Pullen said. “He never meets a stranger, and among his strengths are a sweet disposition and fun-loving nature. There have been many breakdowns and combative episodes over the years, but he’s now found his flow. He is funny, kind, loving, and wouldn’t hurt a fly. He understands and reciprocates love more than anyone else.”

In addition, Britt is great with electronics, often helping others with their technology woes. He also has a knack for dates and can remember anyone’s birthday and what day of the week it falls, as well as the dates for all holidays. In fact, according to his father, if you ask Britt what day your birthday falls on this year, next year, or five years from now, he will get it right every time.

Just down the road at Ruston Junior High School, 14-year-old Reece White is autistic and also a technological wiz.

“Over the years, it has been amazing to see him use technology for educational and recreational purposes,” Reece’s mom Tiffany White said. “Like all kids, he has learned how to utilize the iPad and cell phone sometimes better than parents.”

White said Reece was diagnosed at age 2 after regressing and losing all language and other skills.

This prompted the family to dig into research as well as therapy and biomedical intervention such as diet changes.

“Our journey has been long,” White said. “No two autistic individuals are the same. So at times it was very tough but also very fulfilling to see Reece overcome many obstacles. His behavior has improved dramatically. He is very calm, well-mannered, and patient.”

For White, a major misconception is that her nonverbal son is unaware. However, she explains that Reece has a very keen sense of what goes on around him as well as his likes and dislikes, and his receptive language has grown by leaps and bounds.

“Even with his challenges, Reece has an incredible gift of adapting to all environments. Everything about him brings us a tremendous amount of joy,” White said. “He is always happy and smiling. People seem to be drawn to him and his personality.”

Both the Pullen and White families are grateful for the outstanding resources and support they have found within the community. Whether access to speech/occupational therapy and adaptive learning techniques with highlycompassionate teachers and learning paraprofessionals, having their child set up with a job for further developing life and social skills, or being blessed with nurturing and loving teachers, the families say they appreciate such assistance. They also agree it is important to remember that all people with autism are highly intelligent in one way or another and capable of learning at a higher level given the right support system.

According to their families, Britt and Reece are managing well during the stay-at-home orders being observed due to the coronavirus. While Britt requires a stricter routine, he does understand the situation with the “bad virus” as he calls it, and is not constantly wishing to go and do things, although he does miss going out to eat.

Not one to become upset or thrown off by not having the same routine, Reece has enjoyed bonding with his family while at home and has become interested in making and watching TikTok videos with his sister, among other things.

In addition to celebrating differences this month, Autism Speaks is promoting 2020 as the Year of Kindness, encouraging citizens across the world to join in achieving one million acts of kindness, big and small. For both the Pullen and White families, nothing could be more important.

“Living with someone with autism is difficult at times and takes an extreme amount of patience,” Pullen said. “It is our wish that people would understand that, and in turn show more patience and compassion on their end. Just because they may not always understand things like someone with a higher learning capacity, they still have the same feelings and emotions and desire for love and affection like the rest of us.”