A young Orange County man establishes a healthy relationship with autism and anxiety.
“I’m feeling pretty good about myself right now.” That’s my son talking. My son, Drew, the 22-year-old movie blogger and aspiring screenwriter who happens to be on the autism spectrum. Yes, those words and that self-awareness have been a long time coming. But now they are music to my ears. It’s not a constant state, mind you, but when it does come around it’s ever so sweet. And the fact that he clues me in to it is pretty cool, too.
He was yukking it up with families and other vendors at a special needs resource fair recently. When he holds his own in a new social setting and is able to connect with others in a typical way, it gives him his own personal high. Puts him in the zone, you might say. So when he’s “feeling pretty good about himself” his anxiety and self-criticism subside.
But it wasn’t always this way. When you have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and anxiety, life is a bit more challenging—getting through school, making friends (or not) and trying to play sports. Just to mention a few.
I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. For my son to keep up with his peers, he has to work harder, that’s all. And some things take longer. Oh well. It didn’t stop him from getting his driver’s license at age 18, graduating high school with honors, living on his own (with a roommate) during college and earning his associate’s degree in December 2018. All while carrying the extra baggage of ASD and anxiety.
What’s more, he’s an integral part of the nonprofit organization I founded, Autism Resource Mom. My son is a valued board member, volunteer and activity coordinator. He has a part-time job with Edwards theaters that he absolutely loves and he’s been a volunteer with the Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) since 2013.
The best part of that latter item is that after all the years volunteering at the Film Festival, this year his involvement takes a slight twist. A student film he directed (and appears in briefly) was submitted and accepted into the festival! While this is hugely exciting for him, he quickly admits, “I’m kinda nervous about it, too.” Ah, the nasty fiend of anxiety is never far away.
According to Drew, “‘Leemo’ tells the story of Evan, who, after enduring too much heartbreak, surrenders his love to the titular creature. When he finds his soulmate, Evan sees a chance at a life, but Leemo stands in his way.”
So how does one catapult from Special Day Class (SDC) Preschool to earning an associate’s degree and holding down a part-time job while living independently outside the family home at age 22?
It began with getting diagnoses so we’d know what to do. Then, after adjusting to that news, my husband and I put our priorities in order. Number one was our son—getting him the support, the services, the interventions necessary so that he could access the same things as his peers—in school and play, while carrying the extra baggage of ASD and anxiety.
From high school, he went directly to junior college, with the support of a terrific program, College Living Experience (CLE). It provides wraparound services and teaches him how to live independently. He has grown tremendously—he lives in an apartment, his life skills have improved and his coping skills and self-awareness are developing each and every day.
“Mom, you’re pushing me out of my comfort zone,“ he says every time I urge (nag) him to do something or go somewhere that makes him anxious. “Then I’m doing my job,” I say with a smile. This exchange started from day one, and continues to this day. We acknowledge his anxiety, make friends with it and do it anyway. That’s our formula for success as he lugs the extra baggage of ASD and anxiety through his life.
See, for most of my son’s life he’s been misunderstood, bullied, afraid, excluded or summarily dismissed. No wonder I was never far away with a needed explanation, interpretation, apology, you name it. A hovering, nagging and controlling mom—but a loving, protective and nurturing one, as well.
Truth is, when your kid is never invited to parties or get-togethers just because of his way of being, that’s when I learned to reach out and find support groups in my community. The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself and your child. When our son was in high school we wanted him to join some groups or clubs for the benefits of socialization, but we couldn’t find anything that matched his interests and level. That’s when I started Autism Resource Mom, Inc.—a nonprofit organization that provides support, guidance and hope to individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families. Through the support we offer parents and caregivers and the activities we sponsor for the individuals, we make sure that our members get all the social opportunities afforded to their typically developing peers.
“I’m currently in the best place I can be,” says Drew. “And I’d rather not wander off the trail.” He uses the skills acquired from his experience in dealing with the autism diagnosis and anxiety to help peers in similar situations, and to stay calm in troubled times. His modest response to what got him to this point? “Self-love and self-confidence,” of course. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and talking with others—always externalizing his challenges—hasn’t hurt, either.
Simply put, this fella has taken his anxiety—a fiend in his day-to-day life—and made it his friend.
To learn more about Orange County-based Autism Resource Mom activities and offerings, visit autismresourcemom.org. Read Drew Smith’s movie blog at mrdrewsreviews.wordpress.com and check out his YouTube channel, Mr. Drew’s Reviews.
By Debora L. Smith
Photo above: Mike (left) and Drew Smith (right).Photo by Debora Smith