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Erica's Story: Autism Awareness Month

Erica, a 17-year-old with high-functioning autism, has her own unique set of coping skills that most often involve a writing tool.  Whether drawing cartoon characters, writing name after name in an organized list, or quickly typing out text-based roleplaying with online friends, Erica relies on expressing herself through words or pictures.  It’s a safety valve of sorts - a way to help handle the stress of a situation before it becomes too overwhelming, or to help make sense of something she might not understand.
“Typically, children with autism have delays in the area of pragmatic language, idioms, metaphors, jokes, etc.,” said Beverly King, Erica’s mother and a Human Services Practitioner at the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at USF (CARD-USF). “For Erica, I noticed that when she understood that she was not getting something like others did, she would read all that she could to learn about it.” 
Erica's most recent need to understand something has turned into a very unique talent, and all because of the idiom “in a pickle.” Erica asked her mother what the idiom meant. Once her mother explained, she went on to write a script about how she saw it.
“From there she wanted a book,” said Beverly.  “So I had the idea for her to make a drawing of how she saw it before she read the meaning. Within three days she had drawn 67 idioms.”
Beverly said that Erica turned to the pencil as a form of comfort at an early age. When Erica was young and first starting school, she had a special toy that she took everywhere. The school didn’t allow toys to be brought in, so Erica found her own way to have something special with her. She tore a piece of paper into the tiniest circle, drew a face on it, and carried her new “friend” with her wherever she went.
As she grew older, Erica would struggle to pay attention in class because a name would run through her mind over and over again and block out her ability to concentrate. Erica gave an example using the name “Ben.” She said it even got to the point that she called someone else Ben, so she came up with the plan that if she just wrote the name down on a piece of paper, it would be freed from her mind, and she could continue to focus on class or her present surroundings. She now has more than 600 names neatly written in a notebook, and she adds more regularly.
“Just because you don’t see it or hear it doesn’t mean something isn’t going on in their heads,” said Chantell Rodriguez-Del Valle, a CARD-USF consultant. “They just need a way to get it out, and Erica found her own way.”
Erica visits Chantell’s office after her community based training on Wednesdays and makes her rounds to everyone that may be in the office or have time to look at her new creations.
“To see the difference from year to year is phenomenal,” added Chantell. “I am so glad her talent and unique strategy can be shared so that she can inspire and motivate other teenagers with the same challenge.”

Photo Above: Erica shares one of her favorite idiom drawings, "sweep you off your feet."
The Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida is a community-based project that provides information and consultation to individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities. CARD-USF offers instruction and coaching to families and professionals through a training and assistance model. For additional information, visit http://card-usf.fmhi.usf.edu or call (813) 974-2532.


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