Rachel Wrangham, 21, is a full-time student in graphic arts at Front Range Community College and works part-time at a Dairy Queen to earn extra money. Matthew Denman, 23, who also attended Front Range, makes greeting cards and calendars that are sold in local stores and on his website. Nate Bush, 23, is studying art and graphic design at the University of Colorado.
The three have more in common than their artistic interests. They all have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The fact that they are working toward living independently and planning careers is a function of their own determination, family support and therapies such as social skills classes or biomedical supplements that have helped them along the way, their families say. They are reaching adulthood as part of the first wave in the "autism epidemic." Before the 1980s, autism was thought to be rare, affecting about 1 in every 2,000 children, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. The most recent CDC figures peg the numbers at 1 in 88 for the disorder, which is characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication and behavior.
However, a proposed change in diagnostic guidelines may decrease the number of children being diagnosed and potentially reduce services that can help those on the autism spectrum reach their full potential, advocates say. Most affected under the proposed criteria are likely to be those who are higher functioning, says Theresa Wrangham, Rachel's mother and one of the founders of the Autism Society of Boulder County.
"We are going to see an attrition ... of kids like Rachel," Theresa says. "That's the fastest growing section are the Rachels. People with autism progress over lifetime like the rest of us, based on their experience and the support they receive. She would not be where she is if not for that support."
The social piece
Rachel got an employee of the month award her first month at Dairy Queen. Like her coworkers, she wanted the job to earn some extra money. But the job is important for another reason, her mother says.
"When she gets degrees in multimedia graphic design, there is a customer service portion," she says. "She has to listen to customers -- what they want in a brochure or slide. She has to take those thoughts and meet customers' desires while bringing in her expertise."
That "active listening" as Theresa calls it is one of the most difficult parts of communication for a person on the autism spectrum.
"Customer service offers her the potential to improve on some of those challenges, to test her abilities in that realm, to read social cues," Theresa says. While Rachel has
It also provides a chance to practices the niceties expected in small talk, social expectations that can prove a minefield for those on the autism spectrum.
"She's a very honest person," her mother says of Rachel. "She had to learn to candy-coat things and lie. In middle school, a friend said, 'Don't you like my new dress?' Rachel said: 'No, it's awful.'"
'Doing pretty well'
Bush, the CU student, remembers having to learn rules of social interaction, as well.
"People say, 'Hi, how are you?' I used to stop and think about it," Bush says.
Then, he realized it was not necessary to pinpoint exactly how he was doing at that moment and give a detailed answer.
"I learned it was a greeting. You can just say, 'fine,'" he says.
While others pick up on such social cues, Bush says he had to learn such skills.
"If I learn enough of it, I can blend in pretty well," he says.
Bush was diagnosed with autism when he was 4 and later received a diagnosis of Asperger's, which is primarily characterized by communication problems, difficulties picking up on social cues and obsessive interest in specific subjects accompanied by a high level of intellectual functioning. Often occurring with Asperger's, as well as with autism, is an extreme sensitivity to lights and sounds.
Bush's mother, Kristen Erby, says her son did well academically.
"He has an excellent memory. He tests well," she says.
However, he was extremely sensitive to fluorescent lights and struggled with working in groups. She ended up home-schooling him through high school.
Bush still struggles a bit working in groups and doesn't see the point.
"Why are we in a group when I can do it by myself?" he says.
He also sometimes has difficulties with sensory issues. For instance, a professor liked to play the radio during a studio art class, something Bush found distracting.
"It was extremely annoying to me," he says. "It seemed like everybody else could tune it out, but I was always hearing it."
However, for the most part, college has not been too challenging, Bush says. He says he didn't realize he was different until he was in his early teens when a family member was reading an article about Asperger's and said, 'This sounds like you.'"
Bush's reaction: "I didn't believe at first that I could have a thing."
Now, he sees it as simply being a little different from most people.
"I think that being different causes problems missing social cues. That might not be such a good thing," he says. "(But) if you can deal with it, it's not that different from being left-handed. I think I've been doing pretty well."
Matthew Denman, 24, is in business with his mother, Susan, selling fine art greeting cards, calendars and comics.
The back of his 2012 calendar spells out his philosophy: "I have had the diagnosis of autism since I was very young, and I am walking out of it, because I am done with it. I graduated from community college with a 4.0 GPA. I create and sell fine art, greeting cards, calendars, and comics. I love getting to give joy and blessings to others through my artwork."
When Denham was diagnosed at age 3, few therapies were available, his mother says, and those that were -- physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy -- didn't seem to do much, she adds. She felt that school focused on his deficits rather than his strengths.
"That obviously wasn't working. It didn't work for me growing up either," he says.
She also believed that the school day was so long that it overloaded her son's senses. By middle school, she decided to send him to school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., concentrating on classes he liked.
"When we put him in classes he could do, it started changing everything," she says.
Although she knew her son had artistic talent, when Denman saw some of his work from a high school art class, she realized it had commercial potential.
"It's really taken off as a profession for him," she says. Soon, they are planning to turn some of his work into motion comics.
"He also does the voices. He has so much creativity," she says.
While Matthew's pictures are frequently of nature, his cartoons are more in the superhero realm.
His first heroes were Neon and Plasma.
"The bad guy is Phantom Madness," Matthew says. "He wants to scare all the people with fear."
In the course of the cartoon, Phantom Madness gets a "thunder knuckle," which Denman explains is "an electricity knockout in the face."
As for the final result: "The good guys always win."