Autism is part of life for siblings
Reporter's note: The Star-Observer first wrote about Richie Stokke in April 2001 when he was in kindergarten at Willow River Elementary and again in 2003 when he was in the second grade. Now a fourth-grader, we recently checked in with Richie and his older sister, Meghan, to see what life is like these days.
On a recent after-school visit to his home, Richie Stokke, 10, was doing what a lot of kids do to unwind - having a snack and watching a movie with his older sister nearby.
Meghan Stokke is 15 and she looks after her brother when her parents are at work. Richie was diagnosed with autism when Meghan was 8 and while she has always been aware that many things are different for Richie, that is all they are - just different.
"He is just a regular kid to me. I know it isn't the same for other sisters and brothers but that's just how it is. And every year he grows in some new way or does something he couldn't before. Everybody's little brothers and sisters change as they grow up. It's different for Richie and me but kind of the same too," said Meghan.
Meghan says she has grown up knowing that autism has put some pretty significant challenges in front of her and her brother and their parents, Dawn and Scott. As a result, a lot of the focus in the family is on Richie but she doesn't resent that.
"It has to be that way. There are a lot of things he couldn't do on his own or didn't used to be able to do. That doesn't mean things were bad. It's just the way they are and it is getting easier as we both grow up."
Meghan says communication with her brother has grown easier over the years and the two clearly have rhythm between them as they talk. She encourages responses, corrects anything inappropriate to focus and direct his communication, all in a very matter-of-fact, run-of-the-mill manner. She proudly describes the things he is able to cook on his own, how he can recite every word spoken in his favorite movies and cartoons, and how well he adapted this year to a new teacher and the bus ride to school.
Since the last story about Richie, Meghan points out that her brother's verbal communication has improved dramatically, that he makes regular eye contact and isn't afraid to speak directly to people. He now plays games with her and their parents and he laughs more.
Along with learning about autism, Meghan said she has also learned a lot about how people, especially other children, react to it. "You really don't know what it is like for kids with special needs until you live with them. I've seen how kids tease and I know what that is like for Richie, how angry it makes him, and when he's angry that puts everybody in a bad mood. Teasing is hard to deal with for any kid but for kids with special needs it is just harder and harder to learn how to deal with it."
Meghan says she feels able to deal with Richie's autism and the needs it presents pretty well most of the time, but she admits to feeling "a little resentment" from time to time. "It sometimes feels like it is all about him but that isn't really a big issue and I just deal with it."
When she feels frustrated or overwhelmed, Meghan says she listens to music, watches television or talks with friends. She has also become an active volunteer with Community Action. She recently led a group of CA volunteers conducting a workshop on bullying and teasing at the Hudson Middle School. She was also chosen as a delegate to Peace Jam, a regional workshop on conflict resolution held in the Twin Cities, and she has a childcare job at the YMCA.
Considering her experience to date, it comes as no surprise that she hopes to have a career teaching students like her brother. "I think I will go to WITC first for training there and then go onto become a special education teacher. I've learned a lot being around Richie and his friends. I like being around them and I know teachers can make a big difference."
Meghan also knows that she will probably be closely involved in her brother throughout both their lives. "But that's fine. Having Richie for my brother has made my life different than some of my friends' but it has also made it better. Because of him I think I see things other people don't always notice. And, who knows, we might end up going to the same college. We're kind of a package deal."
Learning to play the game
Some of Richie's positive development over the past year is probably the result of his participation in social skills group run by teachers Tara Tuchel and Patty Thacker at Willow River Elementary. The group is a follow-up to the free-play groups Tuchel began several years ago.
The group begins with students discussing what it means to be a good sport or a bad sport, the kinds of words that are associated with those terms and what kind of response is appropriate in a given situation.
After a brief discussion the group heads to the table for a game of Chutes and Ladders. Tuchel says that when the group started they spent most of the period trying to decide who would get what game piece and who would go first.
"But now we can get right into it. They pick their pieces, roll the dice to see who goes first and kind of compete to see who can say the most good-sport things. It has been a very positive thing."
Tuchel says Richie's progress continues to encourage everyone. "It has been a wonderful thing to see happen. He's a different boy than he was when you first saw him in kindergarten. He's changed so much, and life is just better for him. Between a supportive home and what we can offer him at school, it's a good situation."
For more information about the Communications Interaction Disorders program that serves students with autism in the Hudson School District, contact the Pupil Services office at (715) 386-4906. For more information about autism, go to www.asw4autism. org or www.autism-society.org.
Meg Heaton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org