Monday, April 30, 2012

Leo and Autism Acceptance Month

We're featuring "Slice of Life" conversations with Autistics of all ages -- kids through adults -- throughout April's Autism Acceptance Month.

Our goal is to help TPGA readers understand that autistic people are people who have interesting, complicated lives and who are as diverse and varied as any other population united by a label.

We are the people in each other's neighborhoods, and the more we know about each other -- the more visible autistic people and children are -- the more common autism acceptance will be. That is our hope.

Today we're talking with eleven year old Leo, who prefers action to conversation. He answered the first two questions below himself, otherwise the answers are mostly videos, photos, and his mother's observations, which she hopes are accurate -- and which are in italics.


What is your name?

Leo Rosa.

How old are you?

Eleven years old.

He is at the beach. Having the best time ever rubbing and tossing and swishing hands and feet in the pebbles.

Do you have a website?

You can read about Leo all the way back to July 2003, when he was first diagnosed with autism, at

What would you like a one-sentence description of yourself to say?

I imagine Leo's description of himself would include green straws, hiking, biking, swimming, croissants, jumping into his parents' bed for snuggles, trampolining, other peoples' elbows, being an iPad smartypants, and possibly Disneyland. (I would add that he is sweet and fun and sneaky-smart.)

Do you have any autistic superpowers? What are they?

Leo has innate musicality and rhythm (see video), and we suspect he has perfect pitch.

Leo never forgets anything important that he can mentally anchor with a visual -- geographic locations, people, etc. -- even if he hasn't seen them in years, even if he only saw them once.

He is fantastic at figuring out technical settings on iPads and computers, much of the time I have to go online to figure out scenarios he gets intuitively.

What are some situations that make you happy, or satisfied?

Finding a path to follow in a circuit, especially when it's a nice tight circle.

Being at the beach and playing in the waves. Indefinitely. Especially when they're strong. Swimming in general.

What are some situations that make you sad, or anxious?

Life-size characters like those at Disneyland are extremely disconcerting (he once almost punched Pluto when said character approached too quickly). He dealt with the anxiety of meeting Mickey Mouse by rubbing his hands together in Mickey's face, almost as if to ward the mouse off.

Because communication is hard for Leo, visual schedules (digital or paper) are really important to reduce anxiety, and help him understand what's going to happen next. Visual schedules that include choices are critical, so Leo is participating and isn't just doing what he's told.

New situations and transitions cause a lot of anxiety. Custom social stories can help; digital custom social stories with voiceover let Leo independently read the story, and at his own pace. He can then go over the sections on which he particularly needs reassurance, or just enjoys revisiting.

Are there specific topics you find particularly compelling?

Getting inside nice cozy spaces of any type is priority #1, whenever such an opportunity presents itself.

Leo focuses intensely when he uses his iPad. Though his favorite app selection changes all the time, right now his circuit is to cycle through Count TV, Write My Name, Seuss Band, Bug Games, UConnect, and Fruit Ninja.

What are your preferred ways to be social? 

Doing sensory activities together makes Leo wildly happy. In the photo below we are digging our feet down into smooth beach pebbles and trying to find each others' toes.

Swinging next to or dancing with someone while holding their hands is always nice. Singing together, especially call-and-response, is a favorite social activity.

What traits do you prize in a friend, or companion?

Leo likes easygoing people who let him be himself, and don't mind if he spends time on his iPad or doing his own thing for a bit.

He likes people who will follow along or alongside him when he's exploring a beach or hiking trail. the way that is wet sand on his butt.
He likes people who are nice and friendly and understand that being curious comes in many forms and presentations, as does having fun and being engaged in an activity. He really likes people who arrive bearing long green straws.


Are there parts of your life you wish were easier?

I think Leo would very much like to be able to communicate his thoughts and desires more easily. We are constantly exploring ways to support his communication.

I suspect he also wishes it was easier to process the world around him, as when the input streams get overwhelming (e.g., too much ambient noise AND someone talking to him AND having a runny nose at the same time) he copes by either focusing on one element or function at a time and blocking out the others, or he becomes dysregulated and upset.

What's the next big goal you have for yourself?

Leo just learned to ride a two-wheeler bike without training wheels -- it was part of his IEP. He seems incredibly proud of himself. Now he just needs to master braking. 

What does bliss feel like to you?

Leo seems to be blissful when riding the twirly ladybugs at Disneyland, or swimming, or doing any of his favorite activities, really -- he's a happy kid in general, and gives himself over completely to his activity of the moment, so when he's happy, he's really, really happy.

As a footnote about Leo: He is a loving boy, and he is very loved. Even though he doesn't always like posing for photos. :)