Understanding autism spectrum disorder

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Until 25 years ago, very little was understood about what we now call Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, there's an array of services in Vermont that support independence for people with developmental disabilities.

Channel 3's Christina Guessferd sat down with one young woman who's become successful through that system.

Emalie Newhall was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at just four years old. As a 21-year-old, she's well on her way to becoming an autonomous adult.

"I don't think anyone would imagine looking at me now that I had autism, but if they saw me back then, they'd be like, 'Oh, yea, she has something, she has something. She has quirks to her,'" Emalie said. It was in high school, she realized she was different.

"I was the one getting taken out of classrooms to work on my speech. I always had either a one-on-one or someone with me by my side," Emalie explained. "Nothing came natural to me."

Her biggest struggles are communication and eye contact. "I couldn't say what was on my mind," she said. "They'd constantly [say] look at me in the eyes, look me in the eyes, you got this."

Obstacles she's since overcome with the assistance of animals and support of her family.

"Everytime we spoke to Emalie, we were on our knees, getting her to look at us," Emalie's grandmother Mary Provost said. "The minute we learned, OK, we need to tell her what we want her to do, not what we don't want her to do... things changed."

Experts say identifying which learning techniques work best for someone on the spectrum is crucial because treatment is never one-size-fits-all.

"Everyone's an individual, and everybody's skills, everybody's abilities are individualized," Jake Cernak of Howard Center's SUCCEED program said. Institutions like the Howard Center design those individualized plans, meeting clients and their families where they're at, then helping them get to where they want to be. It's a resource Emalie has utilized many times.

"A lot of folks are told things that they can't do, and a lot of emphasis is on their disabilities. When they prove to themselves and everybody else that, 'I'm able to do these things.' Really seeing the strengths and the person before the disability is really incredible," Cernak said.

For Emalie, repetition and a strict schedule were keys to her success. Now, she's accomplished more than she ever imagined possible. Since graduating high school, she's earned her dog grooming certification. She and her family say she's ready to take on the world.

"From the moment we got that diagnosis, it was what's her life going to be like at the end of the road?" Provost said, tearing up. "She's there. She'll be successful. She's worked. She's great with animals. Life is at her feet. We are so proud."

"That definitely made me feel inside that I can do this. I have potential, and just because I have autism doesn't mean I should let it hold me back," Emalie said. "I have miles to go, and they're going to walk those miles with me."

Emalie says her most immediate goals are learning how to cook, do laundry, and drive a car. Eventually, she plans to live on her own.

To learn more about Vermont's supports and services, call Howard Center's Access & Intake line at (802) 488-6000. They'll connect you with the resources that fit your needs best.