Autism didn't stifle his ambition
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From the Raleigh News Observer
September 01, 2009
BY ALEXA GARCIA-DITTA - SPECIAL TO THE OBSERVER
For the first 12 years of his life, Chris Fitzmaurice couldn't sound out the letters of the alphabet.
He spoke in high-pitched screeches, didn't make eye contact with others and wouldn't hug his parents. Diagnosed with mild-to-moderate autism at age 2, Fitzmaurice's communication was so limited that his doctor thought he would have a difficult time learning new things.
He proved everyone wrong.
Last month, the 23-year-old started graduate school at UNC-Charlotte.
"I made it a personal commitment of mine," the Asheville native said. "A lot of people have college degrees; I want to do something big for everyone else."
Autism spectrum disorders cover a range of developmental disabilities that typically involve difficulties in social interaction and communication. People with autism, often diagnosed at age 3, have varying learning capabilities, from "gifted to severely challenged," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most autistic children complete high school, but higher education is a rarity, experts say. Depending on the severity of the disability, children are placed in full-time special education classes, or services are integrated in regular classroom settings.
Despite Fitzmaurice's shy nature, his childhood physician, Dr. Olson Huff, saw potential in the toddler he remembered as "a sensitive young fellow." With the right therapy and support, Fitzmaurice may be able to develop almost normally.
"Children like Chris often get written off as being unqualified to learn or ever fit in," the now-retired developmental pediatrician based in Asheville said. "The potential for their future is much better with the appropriate reinforcement."
A life of rituals
Like most autistic children, Fitzmaurice lived his early life "in rituals," his father, Michael, recalls. He ate out of the same bowl every day, drank from the same cup and carried the same dinosaur toy everywhere he went. He rocked back and forth constantly and hit his head against tabletops.
His four siblings -- three also had learning disabilities -- didn't reach out to their brother. To them, Fitzmaurice was "a real hassle for them growing up."
"It was hard to explain autism to the other kids," his father said.
When the left side of his body fell numb at age 5, Fitzmaurice was also diagnosed with encephalomyelitis, which causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Doctors told his father that Fitzmaurice would never be normal, that he would never be able to drive or walk normally, and his left side would be weak forever.
But Chris Fitzmaurice was determined to get well. As he grew, he strengthened his left side and eventually stopped moving incessantly, but elementary and middle school were hard. He was overweight and didn't have many friends. He left his classroom daily for speech therapy and math tutoring. He dreamed of being "normal."
Fitzmaurice also received training from Charlotte-based Alexander Youth Network and the TEACCH Center, which provides services for autistic children.
Anchored by his family's and teachers' support, his first breakthrough came when he was 12. Mastering the alphabet helped the rest of his skills develop quickly, catapulting him to a grade level higher than children his age.
Fitzmaurice also devoted himself to sports. Though he didn't make the basketball team in middle school -- a disappointment he called "heartbreaking" -- he continued to exercise and took up weight training. He made friends and lost weight.
"I wasn't just getting stronger, I was living a better lifestyle," he said.
He graduated from high school in 2005 and moved to Charlotte for college to pursue a degree in exercise science at UNC-Charlotte.
Keeping it secret
Wanting a fresh start, Fitzmaurice didn't tell anyone except his professors that he was autistic. Though the university offered him services such as a note-taker and tutor, he accepted the challenge without help until his junior year, when he asked for more test-taking time.
Mitch Cordova, chairman of UNC-Charlotte's kinesiology department, who taught Fitzmaurice in two classes, said he was engaging in class discussion and asked thoughtful questions. "What's always really impressed me about him is his dedication and passion to learn," Cordova said. "He didn't let his challenge affect his desire to do well."
Though he said he still interrupts people sometimes and can talk "forever," Fitzmaurice considers himself a normal guy and doesn't let autism affect his study habits or exercise routine.
"I don't look at [autism] as a disability," he said. If it means he has to worker harder than others might, he figures it only makes him stronger.
Exercise started as a personal goal to make friends and feel better about himself but soon became a life goal. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in exercise science in May.
Through a master's degree in clinical exercise physiology, he hopes to train physically and mentally disabled patients and pass along the benefits of exercise.
"I started doing this for myself, but over time I realized there was a greater purpose," he said. "The whole realm of fitness has helped me in so many ways, I feel like I should give back."