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Posted: Saturday, February 05, 2011

 

Film chronicles local boy’s journey to overcome autism

SPARTA - George and Jill Thompson realized something was not right when son Daniel was 18 months old. Doctors diagnosed him with autism at age three. Immediately, they recommended George and Jill institutionalize Daniel.
“Based on our religious beliefs, families are forever, we didn’t want to do that,” George said.
Now 19, Daniel graduated high school in June 2011 with honors and as a member of the National Honor Society.
Plus, he confidently drives a car on his own.
His story is one of hope, and his parents enlisted the help of filmmaker Erika Lupo, who is also the owner of Acting-A-Part in Sparta, to chronicle Daniel during his daily activities, and at special events. Erika is director and producer, with George as executive producer, and cameraman Kevin Harrington who captured each moment.
George did not know when he approached Erika for a recommendation for a filmmaker for the project, that she is an experienced filmmaker, and has additionally taught autistic children.
The documentary film’s working title is, “Not Anymore,” a title that stuck when Daniel would reply how he no longer followed his former way of doing things. It is slated for release in 2012, and is currently being marketed to film festivals, and for television and the big screen.
“We hope this movie will help others,” Erika said. “This has been some journey, and a wonderful story. He [Daniel] is an incredible person and I do believe it’s his family.”
After being told to institutionalize Daniel, George and Jill said they prayerfully sought answers to help him. They found a UCLA study, which recommended interaction with Autistic children at 40 hours per week. Between George, Jill, and Daniel’s four siblings working with him, they clocked in at 80 hours a week of hands-on time with Daniel. Three days weekly an artist friend, Susan Wright, also worked with Daniel. A painting she created while the filmmakers developed the documentary is a physical highlight of the film that records the peaks and valleys in Daniel’s progress.
George said it was about stimulating Daniel’s senses, and found further research on brain growth, and learned the brain does not stop growing until a person reaches their early 20s. They learned the more they stimulated his nerve connections, the more nerve connections Daniel developed.
Daniel’s education began at the Helen Morgan School, and then he was transferred to The Allegro Autism School in Cedar Knolls, before being reintegrated into the Sparta Schools. While at Allegro, his family learned how expansive his mind truly was, and is.
Daniel learned to operate the VCR, which teachers at first said would encourage poor habits. However, the teachers learned that although Daniel could not speak yet, he could count to 31. His parents quizzed him further on how he learned the numbers, and he showed them the calendar in the kitchen. Jill then taught Daniel to count to 100 no more than 20 minutes later.
The teachers reported a couple of weeks afterward, that Daniel knew half of the alphabet, which his parents attributed to the videos he watched including Big Bird, Barney, and Lamb Chop.
“It was a miracle to let him use the videos, he was learning about life,” George reiterated.
Daniel is very involved in his church, and frequently shares his testimony. The family worked with Daniel to help him memorize the 13 Articles of Faith, the tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and, at age five he was the first in his class to memorize them. George explained how Daniel has a photographic memory, which imprints an image in his mind, and he internalizes the picture from there.
Through rote memorization and routine, Daniel was taught everything from holding a spoon, to feeding himself, to brushing his teeth, to reading. And, once he has mastered a task, he will perform it repeatedly and flawlessly.
“Daniel doesn’t know fear,” said George, who attributes his lack of apprehension to Autism. “In a crisis situation he can plow ahead repetitively and by rote.”
This is also one of the reasons Daniel has become an accomplished athlete. He has snagged numerous Special Olympics Gold Medals, and has enjoyed a multitude of sports including swimming, basketball, and track and field. He also bowls an average of 200.
His parents were shocked when he came home one day, and reported to them how he had passed the written driver’s test. They procrastinated on enrolling him in a driving school, and, once they did, the teachers told him he was one of the best drivers they had ever had. On his first day of class, he was driving on Route 15. He has since driven twice to and from Florida, and to Washington, DC, and Boston. In November, he will drive his sister to Utah, then, return home by plane.
One of the last hurdles Daniel is overcoming is learning how to interact in social situations.
He is very well respected by his peers, and even attended his senior prom with two dates.
“The kids have been very supportive, and his friendships have started out of pity, and then you watch them transition into respect,” said George.
George hopes, above all, Daniel’s story will offer a sense of faith in overcoming not just autism, but any condition.
“We’re not so different, we all have special needs,” he said.

Here are some excerpts from a speech Daniel made earlier this year
My name is Daniel Thompson and I have autism.
"My Mom thought maybe I was autistic when I was 18 months old, but the doctors did not agree until I was 3 years old. I said my first words when I was 4, but I did not really talk until I was 5. I did not pay any attention to anyone else in my family until I was several years older. I did not like being touched and I hated loud noises and the dark. I cried almost constantly at Church, when I was a baby, because my ears were so sensitive to sounds."

"I learned to run the VCR better than anyone else in my family by the time I was 2 years old. I would crawl up on the shelf in our family room and take the video I wanted, load it into the machine, and fast forward it to the precise segment I wanted to watch. I would play that scene over and over maybe 50 times in a day - autistic people like to do things over and over a lot. Autistic people also often think in pictures just like a videotape, rather than in words and paragraphs like other people."

"I had to be taught everything; I do not learn much from watching other people, like most kids. Instead, I learn by doing something over and over. For this reason, my teachers and parents taught me by having me do everything over and over until I formed a habit. Autistic people do not like to change their routine, so once I have a way of brushing my teeth, going to the bathroom, doing schoolwork, or taking a shower, I always do each task in exactly the same way and at the same time each day. It’s like developing a videotape in my head that I follow each time I do a task."

"My favorite sports are swimming, basketball and bowling. Because I don’t get cold very easily, I often swim in our pool in October when the water temperature is only 55 degrees...When I was in high school, my Physical Education teacher decided to enter a team in the Special Olympics. I won three Gold Medals in bowling at the local, regional, and state levels. I currently have a bowling average of about 200. I also won three Gold Medals in track and one Gold Medal in basketball at the Special Olympics."

This past spring, my Dad hired a film crew to make a movie about my life, so other people can find hope in their lives or in the lives of a loved one with a severe condition...I still have many things that I need to learn, but my Mom and Dad are working hard with the Sparta School District, our Church, and community programs like Boy Scouts to help me become as normal as possible. Dad says that is so I can take care of him in his old age. I guess he doesn’t realize that he is already there!"