Stepping up to the plate: National Autism Awareness Month is underway
by Michelle Babcock
April 05, 2014 12:31 AM | 1425 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ronnie Whitby, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, enjoys a Miracle League baseball game on a sunny day during the 2013 season.<br>Special to the MDJ
Ronnie Whitby, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, enjoys a Miracle League baseball game on a sunny day during the 2013 season.
Special to the MDJ
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April is National Autism Awareness Month, and many whose lives are touched by the disease in the county are stepping up to the plate when the Miracle League baseball season swings into action today.

Tom Whitby said he and his son, Ronnie, are ready for the opening game, set for 9:45 a.m. today, if the rain holds off.

“He really enjoys every Saturday, going out and playing with the other kids,” Whitby said. “He has big smiles on his face.”

The Holly Springs resident and his 15-year-old son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, are going into their second year with the Miracle League.

“He’s done great,” Whitby said. “You just see the smiles on his face, and you know you did the right things and that he’s enjoying it.”

Most of the obvious signs of autism emerge when children are 2 to 3 years old, according to Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization.

About one in every 68 children in America are diagnosed with autism on varying levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, impacting more than 2 million people in the U.S. alone.

Forty percent of people with autism have average or above average intellectual abilities, according to Autism Speaks, while others may not be able to live independently, as the spectrum is wide.

But despite some challenges, Whitby said he’s extremely proud of his son.

“He’s never disappointed me,” Whitby said of his son. “He’ll always be the No. 1 thing in my life.”

Ronnie participates in soccer and baseball programs for people with special needs, and Whitby said his son is doing great in both sports.

“It’s really amazing how well Ronnie did,” he said. “He’s making contact with the ball all the time, and he’s only been doing in for a year. He picks up on things he enjoys so quickly.”

Ronnie will start at Sequoyah High School next year, Whitby said, and Miracle League gives his son a great activity to be involved in.

“The kids keep swinging until they hit it, and everybody gets a single,” he explained. “Ronnie learns through repetition — doing something over and over.”

Since picking up a bat for the first time last year, Whitby said his son has gotten “100 percent better,” making contact with the baseball consistently now.

Whitby said that many people aren’t aware of the different aspects of autism, and that he’s learned a lot as the father of an autistic son.

“You learn, as a father as you go along, there’s many people that get the wrong impression. There’s so many different levels of autism,” Whitby explained, “There’s just so many different feelings and levels.”

Whitby said he’s lucky, because his son enjoys hugs, but all people with autism are different, Whitby stressed.

“There’s kids at other end of the scale who are ‘avoiders,’” he said. “Ronnie is an affectionate kid. He’s extremely bright, follows directions, but he can’t communicate.”

Whitby has learned more over the years about how to understand his son, and now is able to communicate better with the help of DynaVox.

“It’s almost like a small computer,” he explained. “It’s almost like a large iPad.”

DynaVox uses a series of symbols on a touchscreen, representing categories of communication such as food, body and things to do outdoors. Whitby said his son uses the device to communicate when he’s hungry, most of all.

“He’s a regular teen when it comes to that — he likes to stay in his room and eat,” Whitby said.

When his son was born, Whitby said Ronnie was a typical baby.

“He hit all his milestones,” Whitby said. “He was perfectly healthy.”

Whitby said when his son was diagnosed with autism, as a father he didn’t know the importance of early therapy.

“There’s a lot of things I didn’t know back then,” he said, looking back on his early years as a father after learning about his son’s diagnosis. “There’s a lot of people that still don’t know about it. If you don’t know someone, or have a family member in that spectrum, there’s a chance you may have heard of it, but you still know very, very little about it.”

Whitby said the most important thing for parents of autistic children is to learn more and start early.

“Find resources. There’s scholarships out there, there’s Medicaid. Find the resources to get the child into an intensive-type therapy situation as quickly as possible,” he said. “We didn’t know enough (when Ronnie was young.)”

Whitby said autism awareness, despite improving since his son was born, still has a long way to go. He said the No. 1 lesson he’s learned from the experience is patience.

“It’s helped me in other parts of my life as well, learning to be a ridiculously patient person,” he said.

Whitby said for a lot of autistic people, certain senses can be overwhelming. For his son, in particular, babies crying is “almost like a dog whistle.”

“It not only upsets him, but the thought of a baby nearby, his anxiety level is so high that he’ll get unsettled,” Whitby explained. “He has a sensitive ear.”

However, Ronnie does like to listen to rock music in the car with his dad, Whitby said.

Whitby said recognizing and understanding stress factors for autistic individuals is an important aspect of awareness. His son loves Williamson Brother’s BBQ, and Whitby said they know and respect his son’s needs when they go there to eat.

“They know him there, because he loves barbecue and he’s always loved eating there,” Whitby said. “They know, when he comes in, to seat him in a place where there’s not a ton of small children that are being loud. It is a challenge at times.”

More information on autism can be found on various websites, including: AutismSpeaks.org, Autism-Society.org and CDC.gov/Autism.

The opening game of Miracle League baseball is scheduled for today at Hobgood Park in Woodstock.

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