When some people hear the word “autism,” they immediately think of the 1988 film Rain Man. Although the Dustin Hoffman’s character, “Raymond,” was autistic, the truth is most individuals with autism do not possess the savant skills that he did in the movie.
People diagnosed with autism show different characteristics across a spectrum of disability and typically change as they develop. They represent a very broad and diverse population.
Rider University senior softball player Sam Bennett learned this firsthand recently, working with 17-year-old Tyler Bell, from Pennington, N.J.
Bennett’s opportunity arose from Bell’s relationship with Katie Curran, the Managing Director at Strength Based Behavior Consulting, who works with autistic children. She is also a friend of Rider head softball coach Tricia Carroll.
“Back in the spring, Katie asked me if Tyler could work at my softball camp, helping out with equipment, ice, water,” Carroll said. “She also asked if I had anyone who I thought would be good to help Tyler after school.
“Katie began by asking Coach (Carroll) if anyone wanted to exercise with Tyler, and it ended up becoming more,” Bennett recalled.
Much more, for both of them.
“I’ve never worked with anyone with special needs before,” said Bennett, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Academic team member and pitcher for the Broncs, double-majoring in Elementary Education and Mathematics. “I really didn’t know too much about autism before doing this. They asked me because of my Elementary Education background, and I was up for the challenge.”
“Sam has been working with Tyler ever since, and the Bell family loves her,” Carroll said. “She is great with Tyler, and Katie has been impressed with Sam as well.”
Bell requires help doing simple tasks, using checklists to get him through the day. He responds well to “to-do” lists, outlining his steps to take.
“Tyler has schedules and routines, for everyday life skills,” Bennett said. “I help with non-verbal cues and physical guidance. Standing behind him and almost guiding his hands to do what he is supposed to be doing. He gets positively reinforced for things he does independently. It works like motivation. He goes by a point system, and uses his points for more time on the computer, for example.”
Since Bell was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at an early age, his parents have fought for him to receive help from educators and therapists paid primarily through state aid. However, Bell’s government support will end in four years , once he turns 21.
“The whole point is to shape his behavior in order to help him achieve these everyday life skills so he can do them independently,” Bennett said. “The goal is for him to be independent and be successful at these tasks, tasks as simple as taking a shower or cooking breakfast.”
Bell’s parents are involved with Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy group, and he was the subject of an ABC News feature with Diane Sawyer.
“I thought the show was pretty awesome,” Bennett said. “It was so inspirational to see that. He is such a great kid. He always puts a smile on my face. I love seeing him. I think it was great that the show was on so more people can know more about it.”
This increased awareness, and the experience working with Bell, has prompted Bennett to look at her career goals differently.
“School worked for me, I always enjoyed it, so I always wanted to be a teacher,” Bennett said. “But after working with Tyler, and now that I am working with another 16-year old boy with autism, I am considering getting my master’s degree in Special Education and maybe getting certified in Applied Behavior Analysis.”
So, for the past year, everyone thought Sam Bennett was helping Tyler Bell. As it turns out, however, Tyler was helping Sam find her calling.
It didn’t take a savant to do that.