The puzzle of Autism

Photo by Jenny Rohl/TheNews

Opening up about a struggle for acceptance

Story by Abby Siegel, News Editor

For Darien Rainey, senior from Belleville, Illinois, social situations are awkward, uncomfortable and have developed into a personal battle for acceptance.

“I worry about what I am going to say like every second of the day,” Rainey said. “One of my challenges is, I have to think before I talk, that is another thing that people like me struggle with.”

April is Autism Awareness Month. According to Autism Society, the nation’s leading grassroots autism organization, the purpose of this month is to create a movement toward acceptance and inclusion for those with autism.

In his childhood, Rainey was diagnosed with a learning disability with “autistic tendencies,” but it wasn’t until he came to Murray State that he was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning subtype of autism.

According to Autism Society, characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome include social awkwardness, not being able to understand social rules, showing lack of empathy, limited eye contact and inability to understand gestures or sarcasm.

STRUGGLE FOR ACCEPTANCE

Developing friendships, Rainey said, has always been a challenge for him.

“I’m afraid [my friends] might grow tired of me,” Rainey said.

During his childhood, even before being diagnosed, he said he struggled with interacting with others.

“It was hard for me to fit in growing up because I was really socially challenged,” Rainey said. “I kept trying to reinvent myself so others could see me as normal or cool and so I could fit in.”

In high school, Rainey said he began to improve, but his personal battle for acceptance continued through adulthood. He said he finally found acceptance from his peers through the campus ministry, Campus Outreach.

Logan Burchett, senior from Ekron, Kentucky, is one of Rainey’s good friends. Together, Burchett said they attend Hardin Baptist Church and their campus ministry, and enjoy having long talks about Christianity, personal struggles and being at peace with who you are.

“He has made me feel accepted,” Rainey said. “He assures me that people do accept me, and he has always told me ‘Let loose and be yourself.’”

Rainey said he wants to be seen as normal. He said he can be silly at times and when he is having his outgoing moments he loves to dance “mad crazy, like Michael Jackson crazy.”  He said he loves to sing aloud Michael Jackson, The Temptations, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston.

“Although he is a little awkward, he has a very compassionate nature and loving nature, it is hard for him to express sometimes, but for those who really get to know him it is really evident how much he loves and cares for people,” Burchett said.

Burchett said he tries to teach Rainey about human nature and how men tend to interact with each other, that sometimes friends joke with each other and aren’t serious about what they say.

Although Rainey said he is still fighting to feel dignified in himself, he said he has made improvements in his self-confidence.

“I’ve learned how to stand up for myself,” Rainey said. “You just have to get the confidence to do it.”

SO MUCH GAIN

Burchett said he encourages others to get to know people who are different from them. For himself, Burchett said his friendship with Rainey has made his life much richer.

“I think the biggest thing is people don’t want to sacrifice the situation they are in because they feel like they are taking it as a loss by being friends with someone who has special needs,”  Burchett said. “But, really, it is so much gain.”

Rainey said he wishes people would educate themselves about autism rather than making assumptions about the syndrome.

“I feel like people assume… that there is just one kind of autism and that is people who are severely autistic,” Rainey said. “But everyone has a different level of autism.”

Rainey said his advice for interacting with people with special needs is similar to interacting with any other person.

“Treat them like a normal person,” Rainey said. “Be patient with them and help them become more high-functioning members of society. Just be a friend and teach them the ways of the world, teach them how to interact with people, give people a chance.”