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Accepting autism: More awareness not the need

Posted on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 9:39 am

By Brian Cain

Paula C. Durbin-Westby and son Coby.

Paula C. Durbin-Westby was inspired by 150 empty strollers that lined a college campus walkway.

In 2011, one of Durbin-Westby’s friends passed the spectacle on the way to class and the sight was more than her friend could stand.

The display was part of the annual Autism Awareness Day and Durbin-Westby said it was too much.

“They were symbolizing that autism has stolen your child,” Durbin-Westby said of the April 2 annual autism day display. “And last year I just got fed up and said ‘No more.’”

The 53-year-old said that during Autism Awareness Month in April, the media often displays negative images of autism, complete with overdubbed scary voices, and that many of her friends have come to dread the beginning of spring.

“A lot of people were saying I’m really sick of awareness,” Durbin-Westby said. “Can we have a little less awareness and a little more acceptance?”

So, the Yanceyville Rd. resident decided to reinterpret the message by instituting Autism Acceptance Day and Month beginning on April 2.

She started a Facebook page in 2011 and more than 1,200 users have joined. This year, she has added a Facebook community and a radio talk show appearance on the Autism Women’s Network on March 30.

“It is a disability,” she said. “So, what we’re doing with Autism Acceptance Day is not saying ‘Oh, it’s just fun and flowers and roses.’”

“But it can be,” she added.

The choirmaster and organist at St. James Episcopal Church in Louisa found out she was on the autism spectrum at the age of 35.

“I was born in 1959 and not a lot was known about autism at the time,” she said.

But in 1994, while she was indexing a book—which requires reading the entire manuscript and categorizing important words—she came across an acronym that intrigued her.

“I didn’t know what it was and I really didn’t need it for the book, but I looked it up,” Durbin-Westby said.

She found out that PDD-NOS stood for Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified and she found a link that lead to an entry for high-functioning autism.

“I read about it and I was like ‘Wait, I thought autism was this horrible, bad thing,’” she said. “But the part that I read was like a day in my life.”

She learned that there are three diagnostic criteria associated with the disability which include social interaction and  communication impairments, and repetitive behaviors or intense narrow interests.

And she realized that her ability to read at an early age and her unusually intense love for music were traits associated with autism.

At the age of two, her  parents thought she was memorizing words from books. After they realized that she was able to read, they started buying her beginner books. By the time she was four, she was reading at an advanced third-grade level.

“I read whatever I could get my hands on,” she said.

Her mother also sent her to piano lessons but after she heard an organ for the first time, she was hooked.

“It was all I would talk about,” Durbin-Westby said.

She said that narrow interests can often cause problems for some people with autism but they can also produce joy and be a true strength.

“My intense narrow interests are music and reading,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to do those and make some money.”

She recently wrote the index for the book China Calls, which is about President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. The book is based on transmissions to the President from Ron Walker, head of Nixon’s advance team. For her efforts, in addition to the paycheck, she was also invited to a gala event in honor of the book.

Durbin-Westby has also gained recognition as an organist and singer, and recently performed a solo in a classical performance at St. James.

While Durbin-Westby is thriving, others with autism are not as fortunate. Through her efforts toward more acceptance for people who have autism she is also broadening her own catalog of intense interests.

To join the Autism Acceptance Day Facebook event go to www.facebook.com/events/3072624455978535. To join the Facebook community go to www.facebook.com/pages/Autism-Acceptance-Day/301079916622195.