'You're Pretty Much Special' - Young Man Diagnosed With Autism Spectrum Disorder Encourages Others

Apr 29, 2021

April is Autism Acceptance Month. WNIJ talked to a Rockford couple who said music helped their son after his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  

Some children show signs of being on the spectrum as early as 12 months old,  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alan and Charlotte Abanes say their son David was about 15 months old when they noticed a decline in his speaking.  

“All of a sudden we had just a setback. We had his hearing tested at the time,” Charlotte said. “That was fine. So, we started speech therapy then. But we didn't have a diagnosis until he was probably [in] kindergarten.” 

Charlotte said when David was in daycare, he came home one day with a bite mark on his shoulder. She explained that the caregivers told her he didn’t cry when it happened. From there, David was put into a special preschool where he was diagnosed with primary attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and secondary autism spectrum disorder. 

But soon after the first analysis, he was taken to a psychiatrist. They said for David, being on the autism spectrum was primary.

Charlotte recalled how going to a simple outing could become a source of stress. 

“We went to a family gathering -- he was just about two and they had real loud music,” she said. "And it was a sensory overload. And he just would act out and we'd pull him aside and explain to him ‘No, you can't act like that.’” 

She said many times they had to remove David from different situations because some of the noises were too much for him. But gradually, she said, he learned how to shut things out. 

The Abanes have two other children who are much older than David. The largest age difference is about 20 years. They say his siblings were a huge help when David was growing up.  

Today, there are many resources for families dealing with autism spectrum disorder. A few in Illinois include Easter Seals, the Illinois Center for Autism and The Autism Program of Illinois.  

But David’s father, Alan, said there weren’t many resources for their son back in the 90s. They had to go into the classroom to advocate for him. He said they told the teachers  “do not be afraid of the word autism.” 

“And we had to just keep focusing on it. And do the best we could," he said. "I mean, we've heard during [a] time ‘Well, he's not going to go beyond sixth grade.’ And we're going ‘No.’ And he went through high school. He's gone on to college. He's gotten an associate degree. You know. So that is our pride.” 

Charlotte said the only other resources they had were things online from Autism Speaks

She mentioned that David was put in public school but he wasn’t treated correctly and this stress heightened the signs of autism. David was moved to the Rainbow Academy after a particular incident took place. 

“He was starting to flap his hands. He was doing the spinning,” she said. “The teacher would make fun of him -- she would tell me that he just wasn't going to succeed in life at all. So, Dorothy just took him under her wing. And of course, she's the one that told us he had the ear for music.” 

Charlotte is referring to jazz singer and educator Dorothy Paige-Turner. She said Paige-Turner followed David’s progress since kindergarten and still encourages him today.  

Paige-Turner said David is the inspiration behind her series of books “Thembu The South African Penguin.” 

When asked about how it felt to be the muse behind the books, David’s face lit up. 

“I read them. They were pretty good. It was just something that made me happy,” he said.

David said singing is his favorite past-time. 

“Whenever I was [a] part of like, one of the choral groups in either Rock Valley or Rockford Christian, I pretty much enjoyed what I sang,” David explained.

David moved on to Rockford Christian School and graduated high school with honors.  

He is 28 years old now and works as a cleaning manager at a fitness facility. He has an associate degree in music education and is looking to continue his education once the pandemic subsides. He also has an interest in computer science. 

David has a message for other individuals on the spectrum. 

“You're pretty much special," he said, "and that you're not the only one out there.” 

And he encourages them to never give up. 

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.