The guest speakers for the Ray of Hope dinner were Tami Aldrich and her son Tyler, a senior at Lakota High School. Tyler was diagnosed with autism as a pre-schooler, but he has adapted to his condition and accomplished academic, athletic and social achievements.
Several family members were present and a contingent of teachers, students and administrators from the school system, all in support of Tyler. Tami was the first to speak, beginning with a "crash course on autism."
At the time Tyler was diagnosed in the 1990s, autism affected about one in every 500 children. Since then, autism has been called an "epidemic" that is identified in one out of 88 children. About two-thirds are males.
PHOTO BY MIKE MASELLA
Tyler Aldrich gestures during his talk Sunday at the NAMI Ray of Hope dinner in Tiffin.
"Autism is an umbrella with several forms under that umbrella. Autism affects communication, social and cognitive skills," Tami said.
She and her husband, Al, became concerned about Tyler as a toddler. He seemed healthy but, at age 3, he was nearly non-verbal. Hearing tests revealed fluid in his ears, and more screenings indicated he was eligible for special services.
At age 4, Tyler was diagnosed with autism. At the time, autism seemed to be "a death sentence," because Tami and Al knew little about it.
"Some days, I say to myself, 'How I wish I knew then what I know now.' What I knew then was that raw fear, the fear of the unknown. That raw fear is what motivated me to take the steps I have taken. Autism did not bring me to my knees. It brought me to my feet," Tami said.
She was determined to do everything in her power to equip her son for life in the world when she was no longer around. Tyler's quality of life was not going to be determined only by professionals. Tami embraced his limitations and did not try to hide them from her family.
Keeping her mind open to his potential also was important. She had to put aside grief and fear to became Tyler's advocate and cheerleader. Tami enrolled him in an early intervention program and worked with his teachers to formulate an individualized education program.
Educating herself and others also was helpful.
"Autism is not awful. Not understanding it, not having people around you who understand it, not getting the help that is surely out there for your child - that can be awful," Tami said.
Gradually, Tyler was able to do most of the things his peers were doing. He learned to speak, ride a bicycle, have a birthday party, go away to 4-H camp, run track and drive a car.
Tami abandoned the word autistic and came up with her own adjectives to describe her son: "successful, involved, hard-working, self-confident, unique, kind, polite, responsible and respectful."
She also came to a realization.
"As much as possible, accept your situation without bitterness. Play the cards you drew with faith and optimism. Overcoming bitterness can be a daily exercise. Some of us make it; some of us don't," Tami said.
To avoid getting bogged down, she tries to focus on the good things in her life. Sometimes she must be patient until a solution presents itself. Blaming other people or events is not productive. Tami said she thinks good can come out of any situation when open to the possibilities and creating what we want from them.
"When you become a parent, one of our roles is to teach our children about life. Well, all this time, I thought I was Tyler's teacher. Now I realize it has been the other way around. Tyler has been my teacher," Tami said. "Your dad and I are privileged to be the ones you call mom and dad."
Coming before the crowd, Tyler Aldrich did not speak immediately. Instead, he set up a large plastic jug, filled it with golf balls and screwed on the lid. Then, he asked the audience, "Is the jar full?"
Most people responded, "Yes."
Next, he removed the lid and added pebbles to fill the spaces around the balls.
"Is the jar full?"
This time, the collective answer was "No." Tyler poured two bags of sand into the jar.
"How about now?"
The question got a mix of responses, but Aldrich was not done. He added two cups of coffee.
"How about now?"
Most agreed the jar was full. From there, Tyler went on to explain the components of the demonstration. The jar, he said, represents one's life, with the golf balls symbolizing the most important elements, such as God, family, health, relationships, goals and values.
"Things that, if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full," Tyler said. "The pebbles are for the other things that matter, like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else the small stuff. If you put the sand in the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. ... If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you."
Tyler pointed out there will always be time to clean the house or wash the car.
"It just goes to show that no matter how full your life seems, there's always room for a couple cups of coffee with a friend. And that, folks, is 'the mayonnaise jar lesson,'" Tyler said.
Before continuing, Tyler introduced himself, announced he had just voted in his first election and listed some of his high school activities at Lakota. He promised to speak from the heart. Then, he came out from behind the podium and spoke deliberately into the wireless microphone.
"I am living with autism, not suffering from it," Tyler declared, to a round of applause. "Living with autism is only one aspect of my full character. It doesn't define me as a person."
Communication was difficult for Tyler in his childhood, but he came to realize "not being able to speak is not the same as having nothing to say." Now, at 18, he is able to address a crowd of people, which can be frightening to many adults.
Unlike most people who are language-based thinkers, he describes himself as a "concrete thinker." He tends to think in pictures and to interpret language literally rather than symbolically. Idioms such as "what meets the eye" or "cat got your tongue" sometimes cause problems.
At one point, Tyler turned to his English teacher, who was present at the dinner, and admitted having difficulties with literature in her class.
"Reading 'Macbeth' is a complete nightmare for me, Miss Myer," Tyler said.
One word he does not use is "can't." Even though he may speak in a different style than other people, he now has "plenty to say."
He has learned from his parents, teachers and coaches to focus on his abilities rather than his disabilities. Between grades 5 and 6, Tyler said he was able to engage more freely in social behavior, and he was able to transfer from special education into generalized classes at school.
Next, he advanced to honors classes. He now ranks fourth in his class and is an officer for Lakota's National Honor Society.
Tyler also proudly stated his responsibilities as the school mascot. He had to put on the feathered headdress of the Lakota Raiders and lead the audience in a cheer.
"Being with the cheerleaders is a real plus, too," Tyler added. "I also go to all school dances. It's a great way for me to socialize. And yes, I like to boogie and slow dance with the ladies."
When the applause subsided, Tyler described how he discovered his passion, cross country, in junior high school. He has continued to pursue that sport and track for Lakota High School, earning a varsity cross country letter all four years. During the summer of 2011, he logged 500 miles of running. From June through August 2012, he ran 612 miles. Year-round, he runs 5 miles before school and goes out again after school.
He joked about waving to his classmates as they leave the building. When people ask him why he started running, Tyler replies, "To quote 'Forest Gump' - 'I just felt like running.'"
Being part of a team has taught him about teamwork, competition and finishing what he started. Tyler said cross country is "about 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical."
When he had some difficulties earlier this season, he had to put aside distractions and re-focus on what he wanted to accomplish. He was rewarded by making the last race of the season the best of his career.
"I believe you've only got three choices in life: give up, give in or give it all you got," Tyler said.