ROCKINGHAM — Millie Baucom knows what it’s like to live with someone from another world. That’s because her 6-year-old son, Aaron, has an autism spectrum disorder.
Autism is a developmental disorder that causes people to interpret others, objects and events very differently from the way non-autistic people do. And those differences vary widely from one autistic child to the next. ASD is often accompanied by other disabilities.
According to the Autism Society of North Carolina, no two people with ASD are the same. It affects individuals in a spectrum of ways, some more or less severe.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and this is the first year Baucom has reached out to help bring this often mysterious condition into the spotlight. As store manager of Captain D’s on Broad Avenue in Rockingham, she has made connections with other parents of autistic children just by striking up conversations.
Her staff has played a role in how she has coped with Aaron’s diagnosis at age 4, offering their support in her efforts to spread awareness by donning blue T-shirts on certain days throughout April.
“It’s not a nationwide thing,” Baucom said. “Just this store. We’ve always done things out in the community, supporting barbecues and fundraisers. This isn’t a fundraiser. It’s just to raise awareness. My employees have been on this ride with me for the last three years.”
Often, a child is first diagnosed with a developmental disorder by age 2 or 3, when symptoms become apparent. Emily Tucker is founder of the Richmond County chapter of the North Carolina Autism Society. She is also the parent of an autistic son. Tucker says she formed the chapter for her own self-seeking reasons initially, but soon discovered she was not alone.
“My child didn’t speak a word until he was 4 years old,” she said. “There’s a saying that ‘if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child.’ They’re all different. But you know by the time they’re two or three if there’s something different about your child. For us, Sandhills Children’s Center has been critical in his development. It was a hard decision to put him on that bus at age 3 and have him shipped out to another county for services. This was before Sandhills had a campus here.”
No exact cause is known for autism. Baucom has two older children without developmental disorders of any kind.
“We knew he was different, but we assumed it was because of birth complications,” she said. “He spent his first week in intensive care on antibiotics. He grew really fast and developed fast, but it wasn’t until there were social interactions we could tell something was wrong. He had behavior issues around others. He could be violent. He once threatened to kill his teacher and he was only 3 years old. His doctor wanted to diagnose him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but I knew that wasn’t right, and I wasn’t about to let him be medicated for that at his age. People don’t understand when they see these children out in public. They assume they are spoiled brats and don’t realize what autism is. People with autism are sensitive to things other people aren’t, and they act on what they think is around them.”
Baucom said some of the things that Aaron has trouble with include loud noise, change and transitions. He doesn’t like his personal space to be invaded. He doesn’t like to be touched or held. He had to be taught to demonstrate emotions by mimicking the faces drawn on flashcards and associating them with words.
“He’s very monotone,” she said. “He’ll say ‘I’m happy’ in this flat voice, then right after that grin from ear to ear. Then it’s just gone.”
She said her family is very loving. They never leave home without saying goodbye and telling one another they are loved.
“We had to teach Aaron to love,” she said. “It just didn’t come naturally to him. I hope that by raising awareness more people will be understanding, instead of judgmental.”
To learn more about the Richmond County chapter of the North Carolina Autism Society, contact Tucker at 910-895-9058.