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Monday, Jan. 11, 2010

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writer

RICHLAND — Being autistic doesn’t mean Bill Peters avoids hanging out with friends.

The 27-year-old Richland man loves being around people and enjoying the social interaction even though he’s known since childhood that he is “different.”

That’s why Peters, who has a form of autism known as Asperger’s, and a few friends have formed a new social group for high-functioning autistic people.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Karen Hayes, executive director of The Neurological Resource Center in Richland.

Hayes said the need is real because high-functioning autistic people feel like others are judging them.

People who aren’t familiar with autism may not understand the odd behaviors, and become judgmental and lose patience with autistic people — even those who are high functioning like Peters, said his mother, Norma Peters.

Peters is talkative, outgoing, enjoys learning and teaching languages. But Peters also tends to not observe social cues such knowing when to let someone else talk or maintaining an appropriate personal space.

And Peters also can become fixed on repetitive behaviors, such as watching the same movie endlessly.

Then there are the autistic moments when he gets “stuck” or has an emotional meltdown.

But what would put off some people is no offense to high-functioning autistic adults who are more accepting, his mother said.

Peters and some of his autistic friends are core members of the new social group they call Three Rivers Autistic Outreach.

Peters envisions the outreach effort as a way to help autistic people learn to accept themselves and others like them by having monthly gatherings to talk, watch movies and play games.

Peters lives independently with a roommate. He attended Richland schools, endured incorrect diagnoses of being developmentally disabled and having attention deficit disorder, and survived schoolyard bullying.

Young adults who are autistic have a longing to be accepted by others and themselves, said Ellen, a 39-year-old Kennewick woman who would not provide her full name because of the social stigma she fears she will again experience by publicly disclosing her disability.

“It’s hard to say, but I used to think that I was a freak,” said Julie Meier, a married mother of three from Richland.

“I had trouble finding acceptance and understanding before I met Ellen. I didn’t know of other high-functioning autistic people,” Meier said.

Ellen, whose autistic diagnosis is pervasive atypical development disorder, is a high school and college graduate and trained as a paralegal.

Meier learned of her Asperger’s condition a few years ago when her husband suggested she be tested for autism.

But when Meier and Ellen became acquainted after meeting at an autism picnic, the social connection clicked.

“It’s a very isolating condition,” said Ellen. But once people with autism who are high-functioning link up socially, their lives have a new dimension.

“We have a unique understanding, we laugh together. We don’t notice the twitches. We can just be ourselves,” she said.

“Without having people look at you funny,” Peters added.

Another reason Peters formed the peer group is that plenty of support can be found for young autistic children, but there isn’t much for autistic young adults, particularly high-functioning people.

“The high end (of autism) gets ignored. You can’t find others so easily,” Peters said.

Having to live as a high-functioning autistic person can be challenging, said Ellen, particularly when it comes to getting and keeping a job.

“Everything is set up for people who are flexible, who can do handle change,” Ellen said.

“We have things we are good at, and repetitive behaving is good for us,” Peters said.

Some employers don’t understand that people with high-functioning autism don’t necessarily see the whole picture and can’t see change coming, Meier explained.

But high-functioning autistic workers are motivated to be on time, reliable and are sticklers for the rules, said Ellen, who says she completed the paralegal program at Columbia Basin College with a 3.4 grade-point average.

The next gathering of the Three Rivers Autism Outreach will be 3 p.m. Jan. 17 at The ARC of Tri-Cities, at 761 Williams Blvd., in Richland. A movie night is planned for Feb. 6, but a location isn’t decided, Peters said.

For more information about the autism social group, call Peters at 946-8174.

Source:  http://www.tri-cityherald.com/kennewick_pasco_richland/story/857879.html



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