Residents encourage celebration of World Autism Awareness Day
Local resident recalls journey that brought him back to Craig
Craig — When he was in school, Adam Mercier struggled with algebra — but he excelled at calculus.
“That’s what my whole life has been about,” said Mercier, 30. “I can do complex things, but simple things — good luck.”
Mercier has Asperger’s disorder, which has been categorized by the American Psychiatric Association as part of autism spectrum disorder. He and others in the community are encouraging people to think about the condition in some new ways, especially in light of World Autism Awareness Day on Saturday. April is also National Autism Awareness Month.
Mercier, 30, spent the early years of his childhood in Craig, and he returned when he was 19 after an odyssey that took him to Utah, Texas and Michigan. It was in Michigan, when he was 16 years old, that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder.
School, for Mercier, often created difficult times.
“I got picked on a lot,” he said.
Even today, Mercier said, he sometimes encounters attitudes that don’t seem to allow for alternative ways of thinking.
“There’s sometimes a certain way of thinking, and anyone who’s outside of that way (can be) ostracized,” he said.
In Moffat County, Mercier said, resources for people with autism spectrum disorder tend to be scarce. A program does exist in Routt County, though, with members who are considering ways to expand into Moffat. The Yampa Valley Autism Program started as a nonprofit organization in 2007 and began providing direct programming in 2009.
“We have grown from a staff of three to 14,” said Executive Director Lisa Lorenz.
Lorenz has a 22-year-old son with autism — and when her son was a little boy she was introduced to another woman who had a child with autism. Soon a few parents formed a support group, which eventually grew into the organization it is today.
And it may grow some more.
“I know that there is a lot of need in Moffat County,” Lorenz said. “We’ve had discussion on our board about having a Moffat County branch.”
Six children from Moffat County come to Steamboat Springs to receive social cognition therapy from Diane Yazbeck, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in autism — and who’s also a member of the Yampa Valley Autism Program.
“I work on perspective-taking skills,” Yazbeck said, noting that such work involves teaching children how to regulate their behavior to interact more easily with people around them.
Yazbeck said all of the social cognitive therapy she provides was developed by Michelle Garcia Winner.
In Moffat County, Betsy Overton, coordinator of Connections 4 Kids, said that organization has been partnering with the Yampa Valley Autism Program to run a support group in Moffat County that generally meets quarterly. She said people who are interested can call 970-824-1081.
Intelligence and the challenge of expression
Lorenz said that she’s grown to recognize traits that suggest someone might have autism.
“I have my autism radar,” she said.
But she also noted that such characteristics may, in varying degrees, reside in other people, as well.
“Everybody has some characteristics on the spectrum,” she said.
One combination of traits she has noticed among people on the spectrum is a tremendous intelligence, coupled with a difficulty expressing that intelligence.
“They struggle at varying levels in their ability to communicate their brilliance, their intelligence,” she said.
Lorenz is among those preparing for the Yampa Valley Autism Program’s Masquerade Ball devoted to “Unmasking Autism” at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Colorado Mountain College Neas Dining Venue in Steamboat Springs. People interested can call 970-846-1519.
Navigating medical appointments
“Transitions can be very difficult for many people on the spectrum,” said Dr. Kristie Yarmer, a pediatrician at The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic in Craig who’s developed a passion for working with patients with autism.
Yarmer said she tries to exude a particularly calm demeanor with patients on the autism spectrum, and she understands that coming to the office may create a difficult experience.
“It doesn’t make me mad or upset or bother me when your child has a difficult time at the doctor,” she said. “I don’t think the child is bad or misbehaved or anything like that.”
Although Yarmer agreed that resources are scarce in Moffat County, she noted that many other communities need more resources for people on the autism spectrum, as well. She said she’d like to see regular availability of Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, as well as local access to a social cognition therapist.
Yarmer takes her own son, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder a little more than two years ago, to Steamboat Springs to receive therapy from Yazbeck.
Changing old patterns
Today, Mercier describes his work as something he does with precision — and he notes powerful personal connections, as well. He does cleaning and organizes supplies at Carelli’s Pizzeria, and he also works at a farm called Legacy Genetics, where he cleans, unloads supplies and keeps an eye on the animals. Mercier’s cousin, J.B. Chapman, owns the farm with his wife.
“He’s kind of like a father figure to me,” Mercier said. “He’s been doing his best to help me out with various things. He’s such a busy guy, but he took time out of his busy schedule to learn about autism and Asperger’s.”
Mercier explained the way he pours his own particular energy into his work. He said he asks, “What do I have and how can I use that?”
Mercier has also continued on with his education, earning an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Colorado Northwestern Community College. He said he’s worked on changing the sorts of patterns that once created anxiety for him.
“Once I started doing that, things have gotten a little better,” he said.
Mercier said he hopes that people take note of Autism Awareness Day, even in the simplest of ways.
“Buy a blue light bulb and stick it in your porch light,” he said. “The color that represents autism and Asperger’s is blue, and so that’s why you hear the saying, ‘Light it up blue.’”
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