COLUMBIA — The television in the lobby of the MU Student Recreation Complex blared the score of the Missouri-Norfolk State matchup in the final two minutes of the second-round game in the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Tension radiated from the crowd that gathered to watch the close game, cheering on the Tigers as they struggled against the Spartans.
Yet the din of March Madness excitement erupting right behind her did not distract Becky Llorens, who quietly continued looking down into the MU Aquatic Center, where her son, Nick, would soon join the Masters Swim Program.
Like most high school seniors, Nick Llorens juggles an active schedule. Along with the hours spent in the pool, he also has after-school tutoring sessions and a part-time job that leave him with little free time. Yet, unlike his classmates, Llorens is 20 years old, autistic and about to graduate into the world of adulthood.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health website, autistic disorder or classic autism, is a type of autism spectrum disorder. The term spectrum refers to the range of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment that those with autism can have, according to the website.
The American Psychological Association website defines autism as the "most severe developmental disability." The website also says that autism usually appears within the first three years of a person's life and impairs social interactions as well as verbal and nonverbal communications. Autism spectrum disorder's causes are still unknown. What distinguishes this disorder is the wide spectrum of symptoms ranging from "limited interests, strange eating or sleeping behaviors or a tendency to do things to hurt themselves."
Reaching his potential
Nick Llorens first began showing signs of autism when he was nearly 3 years old, following the characteristic developmental pattern for autistic disorder.
"He kind of quit talking, and he seemed to be less interested in people," Becky Llorens said.
The family first visited a pediatrician concerning Nick's behavioral changes, who encouraged them to be patient because boys can sometimes develop speech later than girls, she said. However, after watching their son continue to withdraw further from any meaningful social interaction and fail to show signs of language development, Nicolas and Becky Llorens had their son evaluated by a speech therapist who first identified this behavior as a sign of autism. A psychologist and neurologist later confirmed the diagnosis.
"It sort of feels like the floor falls out from underneath you, and time just kind of stops because you're not sure what to do at that point," Becky Llorens said.
Initially, Llorens didn't know who to turn to for help or what resources were available to the family. She began commuting with her son to the Judevine Center for Autism, where he would receive the first of many different therapies that have continued to help him overcome his major communication obstacles of speech, writing and social interaction.
Although Nick Llorens was tested as falling in the middle of the spectrum, Becky Llorens believes her son is unique in his potential comprehension and communication facility. Despite a language deficit that limits his verbal skills to short statements or requests, Nick Llorens also writes and articulates his ideas through subtle expression, demonstrating to his mother a greater level of understanding and awareness than even she originally believed him capable of.
"He surprises me all the time, actually," Becky Llorens said. "That's why I never want to say that he's reached his potential and that he won't grow anymore because every time I think that maybe he's at the limit of what he can do, he does more.”
As a result, Becky Llorens continues to push her son's therapy and developmental education, enrolling him in programs such as Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center and Focus on Learning, not knowing what the future might hold in terms of his progress.
Living with autism has also challenged the Llorenses to adapt to their son's needs by slowing the pace of their lives and reformulating the way they communicate to encourage Nick Llorens’ awareness of other people's thoughts and feelings, providing enough time for him to form his responses. They were surprised to find that the extra time was all he needed.
“We used to think he just didn't get it, but he just didn't get the time to respond. So it's challenging, and we think about it every day — how to more effectively communicate with Nick,” Becky Llorens said.
'Falling off the cliff'
This challenge to improve Nick's communication and independence has taken on increased significance as his last year at Rock Bridge High School comes to an end. The transition will be a mix of apprehension and pride as he prepares to move on to the next phase of his life as an adult living with autism.
"People call it 'falling off the cliff,'" Becky Llorens said.
The term is one often mentioned among families with children who have disabilities, Becky Llorens said. It refers to the point at which the public school system under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act can no longer guarantee education. It kicks in once the child reaches 21 years of age.
In May, Nick Llorens will "age out" of the public school system and graduate with the class of 2012. Following graduation, parents of a child with disabilities must then determine whether the future of their son or daughter lies within a sheltered workshop, group home, employment or post-secondary education.
Moreover, to gain access to resources that will help them transition into the next phase of their lives, they must file for Social Security disability at age 18. These facilities include Boone County Family Resources, where Nick Llorens is preparing his resume in its Life Skills Training program.
Currently, Nick works part time after school scanning medical records at the Columbia Endoscopy Center, where his father is a physician. To prepare for future employment opportunities, however, the Llorenses are working with Boone County Family Resources to help Nick build a portfolio of his experience and education as well as a video.
Becky Llorens hopes that will show what her son is capable of because he will not be able to verbally explain himself in a typical interview. This plays an important part in her efforts to have the credentials and support in place for Nick Llorens to financially provide for himself.
Although Becky Llorens believes her son will always need some form of support from family or friends, she has many of the same hopes for him that any mother has for her son — an associate's degree, a full-time job and perhaps a girlfriend.
For now, the Llorens family will prepare for the transition one day at a time. They, like so many other parents of Rock Bridge seniors, look forward to watching their son step across the stage and receive his diploma.
"If you don't live with autism every day, you don't get how embedded that becomes in your mind — constantly thinking, 'How can I help this person be a more interactive part of the world?'" Becky Llorens said.