By Natalie Palumbo
I am 19, a first year Motion Design major at Ringling College of Art and Design, and my older brother has low-verbal autism. A little over a week ago, I moved into my college dorm, and so far I am fairing very well with my heavy schedule. I’m always downstairs in the colorful lobby working – so much so, that people see me as a “workaholic”. I’m not. I’ve just been waiting for this moment most of my life, and I don’t want to fail.
As usual, with every moment, there is always autism.
When my family was helping me move in, we had some complications with Anthony. He was restless, and at times echoing very loudly. Some of the echoing was “yelling dialogue” from TV or movies. We think he was trying to match the energy of everything going on. Anthony cannot be left alone, so we had to take turns watching him and try to keep up with the schedule for new students and parents. My parents had to tag-team their events so one of them could stay with Anthony. They couldn’t go to the evening celebrations for parents, but they said they were happy enough I was there. Luckily, Anthony really liked the campus, and the kids were really nice to him. I’ve met students that want to meet him now because of all the cute things I’ve said about him. Like the night before we traveled to Sarasota, I had to take a break from packing because Anthony wanted to make a spontaneous video with me. He wanted us to do the opening dance from his favorite British TV show “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.” Anthony already had it memorized. I didn’t know it, so I had to learn fast!
At orientation, we had to visit several registration tables. There were freebies for new students at nearly all the booths. One booth had bracelets, so I chose a pink one for me, and asked if I could have a blue one for my brother. The people working the booth were very nice, but said they couldn’t because they had a limited quantity. I understood, and continued on. Shortly after that, my friend Jenette approached me with a blue bracelet for Anthony. She overheard me, and wanted Anthony to have her bracelet. I was so touched – I couldn’t believe she did that for me. Jenette is truly a kind and caring person. She reminds me so much of my best friend from back home.
All the new Motion Design majors had a meeting to introduce themselves to the department, and share some facts about themselves. I mentioned my Autism PSA that won in National Competition for 2013, and that I write as the sibling voice for ‘Age of Autism’. The Head of Motion Design lit up, and told me to get in touch with two senior Motion Designers doing a documentary on Autism. I was absolutely thrilled. They filmed me discussing my perspective as a sibling. Hopefully, they will post the documentary, and I’ll be able to share it.
I was surprised to know how many teachers and students already knew about my Age of Autism affiliation. Some found out from me directly, and others went looking because of information I posted. I found it astounding and extremely flattering that people wanted to know more about Anthony and me.
During the first week, all students participated in a community service project. I chose to volunteer
for ‘Community Haven’, which is a facility for children and adults with disabilities. We were there to do a beautification project, which involved clearing and organizing stuff stored in sheds. We set up all the artsy items on shelves to be sold. I had a chance to speak with Anny Barker Schlefler, who is in charge of this location. Her son, Theodore, has high functioning autism. When this facility opened in the 1950’s, there were no surrounding services for people with disabilities. It began in the Barracks of Sarasota Bradenton Airport as a one room schoolhouse. In order to raise money to buy more land, the parents of these children had to sell fruitcakes. With the money raised, they were able to buy 32 acres of land. Community Haven will celebrate their 60th anniversary in May 2014. I enjoyed my time volunteering at Community Haven, and hope to buy this pony sculpture I found during clean up. It looks exactly like a music box toy Anthony had when he was a baby. I would love to have it in my dorm.
I had a very good first week of college, and feel confident that I can manage my classes. I’ve been calling home every day to share good news and check on Anthony. I am happy knowing there is a family weekend in October when they can visit me. Anthony doesn't fully understand what's going on, but he knows I'm at art school. This is my first time being away from home, and I’m completely enjoying the work, and all the people I’m meeting.
I began drawing because of Anthony. My first successful communication with him was through my drawings. Anthony shows me the world non-verbally. He is very sensory, and what captures his attention helps me create. This is my dream, and I need to do well for both of us. Even though I’m away from home, I feel Anthony’s influence wherever I go.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.