Julius Levesque has high functioning autism. Seen here with his pet chicken, thanks to his parents' efforts and the resources available to children with autism, Julius's quality of life improves with each day.

Submitted photo/The Daily Advance

Julius Levesque has high functioning autism. Seen here with his pet chicken, thanks to his parents' efforts and the resources available to children with autism, Julius's quality of life improves with each day.

Feeling your way through the dark

By Robert Kelly - Goss

The Daily Advance

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Five fingers, five toes; looks like a healthy baby to me.

It’s an old joke, sort of, when someone’s child is born, counting the fingers and toes and declaring that all is well. Yet there are hidden deficits, things that cannot be detected at birth. There are things going on inside the brain that won’t show up until later in the child’s development — things that even now we have difficulty understanding.

Autism.

That’s what happened with Julius Levesque. He came into the world in a relatively unremarkable fashion, like so many children, but by the time he was four his mother Francine says something was amiss.

“He has a sister that is two and half years younger and we thought he was jealous,” recalls Francine.

Julius was banging his head against the wall. He seemed perpetually frustrated. His parents were at a loss as to what was going on with their oldest child.

Francine Levesque took her son to a pediatrician. He was unruly, she says, for the two hours they were in the clinic.

The doctor suggested they see a psychologist. The psychologist eventually suggested that Julius has ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“I was more relieved to find out why he was doing these things so we could help him,” says Francine Levesque.

And help him she has. Levesque as been dedicated to Julius since that time. She has worked tirelessly to give him every opportunity to live a productive, fruitful life, says Camden County special education teacher Tina Lunt.

Lunt has worked with autistic students in area school districts for a couple of decades now. She has seen children from one end of the Autism spectrum to the other and has dedicated her career to understand the needs of these children.

“They came in not knowing how to sit in a chair,” says Lunt of children with autism.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder “is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”

Children with autism run the spectrum from severely affected to high functioning, also known as Asperger’s Syndrome. They typically possess reasonable intelligence and can be highly gifted, but all have difficulty functioning on what might be understood as an average social level.

In many cases these children find it difficult to communicate with other people, and have a hard time differentiating between things such as the difference between a cat and a dog, says Lunt. They also lack the ability to focus.

“The ability to attend to a task from start to finish,” says Lunt.

But through working with these children, Lunt says much of this can be overcome and they can begin to socialize and become a more productive member of a social group, especially people who are categorized as high functioning.

“The earlier the better,” says Lunt of the need to begin work with autistic children.

But getting help can seem daunting. Francine Levesque had to first find resources in the area that would help her not only understand autism, but also point her to the right actions to take for the benefit of Julius.

She found that several organizations locally and regionally are available to parents of children with autism.

The Autism Society of North Carolina is a state umbrella group that provides regional chapters and offers help connecting with a number of other groups addressing autism. They can be found on the Internet at www.autismsociety-nc.org.

Locally, Albemarle Smart Start’s Family Resource center offers assistance to families with special needs children. They not only provide assistance connecting families to needed resources in the area, but also provide a sort of mentoring program, connecting parents with parents in an effort to provide support and information regarding particular issues, in this case autism.

These are some of the resources that Francine Levesque found useful. They provided her with an armory of tools that she could use over the years to give Julius every opportunity available to thrive in this world despite having to cope with autism.

Julius Levesque, now 12, appears to be a reserved child. Like many with autism, he is not socially outward but clearly possesses a strong intellect and when he is focused on those things in which he is interested, his ability to communicate is awakened.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for parents of a child with autism is the task of socializing the boy or girl. Not only socializing in the home and establishing a stronger level of one-on-one communication, but also out in the world, in the types of social settings most of us would take for granted.

“Social situations are challenging,” says Francine Levesque. “Over the years I try to bring him to those situations so he can get used to it.”

And it seems to work for Julius.

He has played soccer, baseball and football. And these days he is an active member of a Boy Scout troop, working on earning merit badges.

In fact, he’s currently working on obtaining a disabilities merit badge. As a part of that effort, he hosted a movie night at the Camden Middle School, featuring the award-winning HBO film “Temple Grandin.”

Grandin is a woman who has overcome her difficulties with Asperger’s Syndrome and became an animal scientist and advocate. The Levesques featured the film in hopes that teachers and area educators would attend and perhaps learn a little more about the autism spectrum.

While some area educators attended, Francine Levesque says in the end she was disappointed with the outcome. She was disappointed because the number of children nationally and locally that fall somewhere on the autism spectrum is alarmingly high.

Special education teacher Lunt says that over a seven-year period the number of children diagnosed with the disorder jumped from 15 percent to 240 percent nationally.

“I think we’ve reached epidemic numbers,” says Lunt.

And there appear to be no answers as to why so many children are born with this disorder. But thanks to people like Lunt, and parents such as Levesque, there are solutions for the children with autism.

Julius Levesque understands that he has autism and he’ll tell you that he has the disorder. He’s not that interested in talking in depth about it, however.

But ask Julius about his chickens or his cat, and his eyes light up and suddenly there is a connection with this otherwise distant boy. And that connection, as he works with educators such as Lunt, will continue to grow and one day he will mature, like the rest of us, to that point where he will join the rest of the world as an adult.

Julius will likely go on to study at a university. His intelligence indicates that he can be whatever he would like to be one day. But in order for the same to be said of the estimated 50,000 autistic children in North Carolina, perseverance, patience and education on the part of the public is and will likely always be necessary.

“From what I hear, the (North Carolina) School of Math and Sciences is full of Asperger’s kids,” says a hopeful Francine Levesque.

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