For 14 years, Andrew Simmons, participant of Social Opportunities and Recreation, was a quiet kid. His family thought he was content staying in his room, watching Elmo and looking through picture books, but after a conference in Indiana their whole family dynamic has changed.
Before moving to St. Charles County, the Simmons family lived in Indiana, where Andrew received music therapy. Susan Simmons, Andrew’s mom, remained close to Casey DePriest, Andrew’s music therapist.
It was Casey that found out Andrew could type and thought the family should attend the ‘Master Trainer Training’ conference in Indiana. The conference, which called for nonverbal individuals with autism who could type and their families, was hosted by Syracuse University. The trainers at the conference wanted to train everyone in one-on-one and group environments using the best typing practices to make progress toward independence of typing communication.
So, Susan and Andrew packed up the car and headed to Indiana. “We thought Andrew had a very low-functioning mental ability, like a two-year-old level,” Susan said. As for many families wanting to try something new for their child, there was excitement and there was also fear.
Andrew has autism and he could type, but he also has a motor movement disorder. “Most of Andrew’s body movements and vocalizations are out of his control, and he often gets stuck in certain movement patterns,” Susan said. “Every day Andrew is trying to control his head, his legs, hands and vocalizations. Add on trying to isolate one finger and get it to go exactly where you want it to type one specific letter, word or sentence.”
At the conference, Andrew was evaluated by a trainer. He had his iPad opened to a notes page where his mom had been typing simple messages to Andrew about his birthday, and he would type back simple responses. The trainer saw these messages and asked Andrew more about his birthday. He typed, “I didn’t get the present I wanted for my birthday.” “At first, I was like what is he going to say next and then I thought ‘oh my word,’ I mean I was stunned,” Susan said.
Emotions ran wild for Susan. She watched as her son typed full sentences, even answering what he wanted for his birthday, “a meeting with a real school.” “I just fell apart and started crying, because I realized what Andrew had said,” Susan said. “As I listened to him talk about his frustrations, I got upset. I’ve been a very strong advocate for Andrew and I thought I was doing the right thing, and then I realized I totally missed the boat. I kept sitting facing him and saying ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.’”
But, then something happened. “Andrew looked up at me, smiled and then typed, ‘I love you,’” Susan said. “And, that was the first time he had been able to tell me that.”
Since the conference, Andrew’s immediate family — including his mom, dad, brothers, Daniel and Alex, and Campbell, Andrew’s support dog — have been getting to know him. Andrew can communicate by typing on the iPad using an app or by using a white board with a keyboard printed on it. The family is also learning the movements of Andrew’s hand, to help steady it, but not do any of the typing for him. “He blows me away every day,” Susan said.
His brother Daniel has been asking a lot of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. “I get to hang out in his room and watch movies with him and find out what he likes and doesn’t like,” Daniel said. Two things Daniel has been most surprised to learn about Andrew is he likes Taylor Swift music and he doesn’t like Disney World. “Andrew told me there are too many people at Disney World,” Daniel said. Overall, Daniel likes spending more time with his brother and thinks it is special that Andrew can spend more time with their mom and other people.
Andrew thinks his relationship with Daniel has changed, too. “I get to share things with Daniel, like movies,” Andrew said. “He reads to me and I love that.”
Something the whole family has learned is how forgiving Andrew can be. “He’s very forgiving and he knows when people are trying their best to help him,” Susan said. “He will forgive a lot when he knows people are doing their best to help him type and to help him progress.”
Andrew wants to be a homicide detective when he grows up. He wants to study French and he wants to study the brain and how it works. Andrew has a blog and a Facebook page where his hope is to reach millions to tell them about his voice. “I have a lot to say because I’ve listened my whole life,” Andrew said.