Rosenblum: Do you want to understand an autistic kid? Ask Daniel

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2012 - 9:13 PM

About six months ago, a book written for kids by a kid landed on my desk. I haven't stopped thinking about it.

This week, I called the author.

I figured he was the best expert to help quash a troubling assumption being made by too many people desperate to name the demon that compelled 20-year-old Adam Lanza to unleash unspeakable horror on Newtown, Conn.

Daniel Stefanski is 16 now, but when he called his mother one afternoon to tell her that he didn't know if he could bear the teasing anymore, he was about 12.

Daniel has autism. If you ask Daniel, he'll politely explain to you that autism is a developmental disorder that affects how his brain works. It is not a form of mental illness, nor is it a personality disorder.

Daniel will acknowledge that he has difficulty communicating with people, that he struggles to understand nuance and sarcasm and that, sometimes, he drives other kids crazy because he can't stop talking about one subject.

He'll tell you, too, how lonely he often feels.

That's when his mother, Mary Stefanski of Valparaiso, Ind., jumps in. She'll tell you that Daniel, and other children with autism and Asperger's syndrome, are no more likely to be violent than anyone else in the population, despite misleading media reports regarding Lanza that are making that very connection.

Stefanski, who also has a college-age son, knows that Daniel is more likely to be the brunt of bullying and violence than the other way around. That's why, when Daniel called her that tough day, she asked him:

"Want to write a book?"

"How to Talk to an Autistic Kid," by Daniel Stefanski ("an autistic kid"), was published in 2011 by Minneapolis-based Free Spirit Publishing (www.freespirit.com) as part of its "survival guide" series for kids and tweens.

It's a tough little book to read because Daniel is so honest, so willing to be kind to us.

We who make false assumptions. We who buy into the myth that kids with autism lack empathy.

"You know what?" Daniel writes in the book's opening chapter. "Even though my brain is different, I'm still a kid. I like to have fun and want to have friends. My two best friends, Megan and Zak, are autistic, too. They invite me to do things, and we have lots of fun together. None of the other kids at my school invite me to birthday parties or to hang out."

Free Spirit president Judy Galbraith took one look at Daniel's "heart-felt" manuscript and knew she wanted to publish it, although books in their line written by teens are "very unusual."

"Daniel is a very caring young man," she said. "He wanted to say, 'Hey, I maybe do things that are frustrating, but I still want to have friends.'"

Daniel also wanted to make sure that other kids with autism have friends. "I've seen a lot of kids getting picked on," Daniel said in a telephone interview. "My wish was to help other people. It's to stop bullying and bring everybody together."

The book offers pragmatic tips on how to talk with kids like Daniel. If his brain gets stuck, he writes, "you could say, 'Can we try something different for a while?'"

If he forgets to share, "You could say something as simple as, 'Hey, don't forget to give me a turn.'"

If he is standing too close, try "Excuse me, could you step back just a bit?'"

Most important, he suggests, "Talk to me."

Mary Stefanski was glued to her television as events unfolded in Connecticut last week. Like all of us, she was heartbroken. But her heart carried additional pain. "My heart sank when they said [of Lanza] that he may have had Asperger's. I thought ...oh, no."

The false link between autism and violence, she said, "only makes it more difficult for parents of kids on the [autism] spectrum."

She, like others, wonders what was wrong with Lanza. "Sadly, we will never know and, whatever it was, he was not properly treated."

Daniel said he began noticing that he was different from other kids when he was about 9.

"I was shy," he said. "Other students could work faster than me."

But he emphasizes his many skills and strengths. He is a wrestling and "Star Wars" fan. He plays golf and the banjo. He enjoys creative writing and science.

After a Twin Cities book signing in the spring of 2011, Galbraith recalls that Daniel was allowed to pick out any book for himself. He picked one on physics.

Daniel has high hopes that his book will change attitudes toward kids with autism. His mom wants that, too, but she remains anxious.

"I was hoping that, after the book came out, things would change," she said, "but, nope. His small group of friends in his resource class support each other. But he doesn't get invited to dances and other mainstream activities.

"It's probably going to get worse now."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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