By Trevor Pacelli
Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Trevor Pacelli was diagnosed with autism at age 5 and has had to deal with many of life’s complexities in an entirely different light. Now 20, Pacelli attends college and has written a book. “Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic” was published in May 2012 and talks about the daily struggles of living with autism and raising an autistic child. Pacelli lives outside Seattle.
(CNN) — Growing up as an autistic has never been easy.
At 5, I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS, one of the five autism spectrum disorders. Those with PDD-NOS have difficulties in areas of social interaction and communication.
While I am high-functioning, my life has been full of enormous ups and downs. There were moments when I didn’t think I was going to succeed. But I fortunately prevailed through many challenges, such as getting my driver’s license, making friends, moving to a new home, starting college and writing a book.
Would I have met these goals by myself? No way. I did at times make the mistake of relying on my own understanding, but when I turned to other resources, including my parents, teachers and peers, I gained the wisdom I needed to accomplish the goals I was striving for.
One challenge I faced as a teenager was getting my driver’s license. My parents always wondered whether I would learn to drive, but signed me up for a driving course at 15.
When I got behind the wheel to go on my first-ever drive, I was terrified. With each progressive step, I got more and more scared, but I practiced consistently with my mom, and gradually got better. Then, the time came to take the written portion of my driving test. My mom helped me study for the test, and twice in a row I failed. The third time, my mom arranged a special accommodation — a pair of headphones so I could hear the questions being asked as well as read them.
Thanks to the headphones, I passed the test. The very next day, I passed the driving portion of the exam, and got my license, a few months after my 16th birthday.
That evening, I went off driving on my own for the first time with my new driver’s license. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever experienced, and it felt so refreshing to be driving on my own. I loved knowing that, in spite of my autism, I could have the same responsibilities as other kids my age.
The most dominant challenge for me, as a child and even today, has been making and maintaining friendships.
I spent probably 90% of my childhood by myself because I never really cared much for people. I made various mistakes when trying to make friends, including wasting time hanging around people who either didn’t care or just wanted to take advantage of my disability.
But as I got older, meeting many different types of students at school, I finally met people who do respect me and appreciate me. Although I’m still not super close to most of them, they have been the type of friends I needed; they help me by pointing out flaws that I am unaware of, and help me understand what friendship really is. This is a skill that I am still working on, but am making progress through the people I see every day, including my parents, friends and school counselors.
The main thing that helped me make friends that I could trust and enjoy was getting involved in clubs and organizations. In high school, I joined the school’s drama department, which helped tremendously in getting to know people better and picking up on social cues.
In college, I became a volunteer for the junior high ministry at my church. I am a group leader for 12-year-old boys, and I help with ministry events. This has not only helped in social interactions with others, but also in responsibility and leadership. Because these activities helped me so much, my advice to parents is to help your child find some type of involvement, whether it’s a school club/organization, a youth program at a church or volunteer work in the community.
The groups I joined fit in with my interests. I wouldn’t suggest joining every group or activity out there, but it is worth the effort and will help your child to an extraordinary extent.
I was very fortunate to grow up in an excellent public school district with a great special education department and wonderful teachers and other staff. My parents were involved with the schools and took advantage of the resources offered. Through all my years growing up, the special services at school have made the biggest impact on my progress.
All autistic children don’t have access to the best public school resources, but they can seek out support groups through local hospitals, clinics, autism centers or private counselors. The college I attend has a program specifically created for students with autism and Asperger’s, which helps them learn their strengths and weaknesses and how to advocate for themselves. I have learned what my needs are and how to ask for help, even though at times I wanted to give up. I have always been given the help I needed when I asked.
My experiences growing up with autism have made me who I am. Because of the help I received through my schools, the activities I participated in and the support of true friends and family, I believe that many autistic individuals can realize their own dreams and goals, such as getting a college degree, living on their own, working in a fulfilling career, marrying and having children.
Right now I drive a car, use a credit card and have a 3.6 grade point average at my community college. I have been accepted at five four-year universities and am looking forward to a future of great possibilities for me as well as other autistic young adults.
While life will certainly continue to bring its challenges to me, I am confident that I can face those challenges and put strategies in place to help me persevere. My sincere hope for anyone with autism is that they find the help they need to give them the confidence to not just survive, but to thrive in life.
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