Embracing Ryan’s Voice- His Story of Hardship, Perseverance, Resilience, Success, and Triumph with Autism

Written by Ryan K. Litchfield

Prior to the age of two, I was considered a healthy baby. I was on pace to meet the appropriate milestones in my life such as learning how to walk and learning how to crawl. My parents taught me many words such as apple, mama, papa, cookie, goo, etc.

Around the age of two, my parents as well as my family members and friends noticed that I was experiencing a lot of hypersensitivity, a lot of tears and crying to be exact. They also noticed I was experiencing temper tantrums, and this was because I was not able to communicate my wants and needs. My parents also noticed a decline in my verbal communication skills, and I eventually became nonverbal, to the extent where I had no communication, no gestures, and even no eye contact. All the words I learned from my parents were a distant memory. My family members and friends, especially my parents, were all concerned for my well-being as they eventually brought me to my doctor.

Around 1996, I was diagnosed with autism, but more specifically, pervasive developmental disorder not-otherwise specified (today it would be diagnosed as autism spectrum disorder). A lot of questions were raised regarding my life such as, “Will Ryan ever talk again? Will Ryan ever function on his own? Will Ryan ever be able to live independently? Will he require 24/7 supports? The nature and severity of my autism was considered severe to profound by medical professionals.

During my early childhood, I underwent many services and treatments. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) was one of the major treatments. My ABA services usually took place in a home setting for about 20 to 40 hours a week for about 2 years, until around 1998. My ABA program was individualized and structured, and it included the following I needed to learn: eye contact; fine and gross motor skills (key for muscle tone); imitating actions/objects (which was accomplished by reenacting the Mufasa death scene from Disney’s The Lion King); one step directions (i.e. Touch your nose); learning oral and written language in order to promote receptive and expressive language; learning to say yes or no; and matching objects and associating them to verbs in order to understand the relationships behind objects. In addition to ABA, I also underwent early intervention until age 3 where I had speech and occupational therapy. I also would at times receive a secretin shot as gastrointestinal issues (GI) were common and associated with the hypersensitivity I was experiencing in accordance with my autism. Common issues I have experienced in my early childhood years, and years later included trouble making friends; problems with understanding social etiquette or even the hidden curriculum and unwritten rules; thinking literally; nonverbal cues; and transitions. Early childhood was very challenging for me and my family as they  experienced stigmas associated with my autism such as, “Your son should be institutionalized”; “He talks weird”; “He has weird thoughts and feelings”; “He doesn’t belong here”; and “He needs to do better personally”. These stigmas were more common in my life during adolescence and young adulthood, especially where I would have people laugh; gossip; and spread rumors about me. Eventually I went into the public-school system.

During my time in elementary and middle school, I had a very difficult time making friends. It was not that I didn’t want to make friends, it was just I did not understand how to appropriately make friends, or, I would feel a lot of discomfort because I was fearful of how they would react when they noticed the symptoms relating to my autism. I continued to struggle with nonverbal cues, and I tended to get quite angry and frustrated when there was not any structure in the classroom. I had a lot of crying and tears during my time in school as well. I was someone that tended to be more independent and alone. Even when I got into middle and high school, I was noticing my vocabulary was extensive and I was sounding more formal than peers my own age. When peers my age would tell jokes, tease, or promote sarcasm, I would usually take things literally. While elementary school was very hard for me, in middle school I noticed improvement as I took part of the band by playing the alto saxophone and by participating on the math team to try to socialize and reach out to peers my own age. Unfortunately, because at  times the nature and severity of my autism would worsen, especially towards the end of middle school, this led to very difficult conflicts in middle school, and, even in high school. I experienced challenges in terms of  relationships, personal boundaries, and the appropriate use of social media. The transition from middle to high school was very challenging with more students, more expectations, and a rotating schedule. In addition, my grandmother passed away to cancer my first year of high school which made the adjustment to high school even more difficult for me. For a period of time, I was experiencing emotional outbursts, and the school was concerned for my health, safety, and well-being, and they didn’t know if I would last at the high school. However, I did turn things around as I was getting excellent grades in my classes, I was taking honors courses, and, junior year,  I started my public speaking engagements, at a local elementary school in my hometown of with another friend of mine, also with high functioning autism, where students were amazed with our stories. Not only did they ask questions about our personal experiences, but they also asked questions about our hobbies and interests which shows that we are people and not just considered people with disabilities. I was on an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) throughout my whole public-school career in which I was receiving speech therapy; occupational therapy; social skills therapy; academic accommodations and modifications (i.e. extended time on tests and quizzes); counseling; and academic support. I eventually was accepted to Assumption University once I graduated from high school in 2013, and the summer prior to starting college, I got  my driver’s license.

Eventually, I went on to Assumption University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies as well as a Certificate in Aging Services, both of which I graduated with in 2017. During my tenure at Assumption University, I continued to do public speaking engagements at local schools on disability awareness and autism advocacy. I have also done disability awareness events at the college at a Light it Up Blue Event for autism as well as talking to students in several human services classes. In addition, at the college, I was a student worker in several offices such as the bookstore; the financial aid office; the continuing education office; and the Worcester Institute for Senior Education (WISE) program. I have taken on several internship opportunities to expand on my network of resources and supports for older adults and people with autism and other disabilities by doing internships at HMEA’s Autism Resource Central, and the Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging.

At one point, I was not sure I was going to graduate from the college on time with my graduating class.  In the spring semester of my freshmen year, I had a seizure in my bedroom and  I was seen at UMass Memorial where based on my history of seizures, and this seizure, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I am happy to say I am on anti-seizure medication that has kept my seizures under control for several years now. I had to surrender my driving privileges for six months as well as withdraw from a course at school .  I made up that course  a couple semesters later by adding a course to a five-course load in which I did succeed.  With good seizure control  I am fortunate enough to be able to continue to drive.

Another challenge I had was back in June of 2015 where a follow up doctor’s appointment led to a referral to the endocrinology department at the hospital after finding out my thyroid levels were low. After the endocrinologist did labs to re-check my thyroid levels, and the radioactive iodine uptake and scan came back positive for antibodies, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disease which the antibodies attack your thyroid  producing too many thyroid hormones which resulted in hyperthyroidism. I was experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, tremors, palpitations, fatigue, moderately enlarged goiter; heat intolerance; increased appetite; increased sweating; radical changes in mood; nervousness; tachycardia; restlessness; and fluctuations in weight (weight loss and weight gain). The endocrinologist put me on an antithyroid medication called Methimazole and a beta blocker called Atenolol to help control the palpitations and tachycardia, and my family and I hoped and prayed I would go into remission.

After graduating from Assumption in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Human Services and a Certificate in Aging Services, I have taken on job opportunities at both Behavioral Concepts Inc (BCI) as an administrative assistant, but unfortunately, my full-time status there was limited as sadly the Graves’ disease returned after trying the antithyroid medication for two years or so, and the symptoms, especially the hyperthyroidism, returned, and my body was getting ill.

Despite this, I did take on a new job opportunity at Montachusett Home Care Corporation, where I have taken on multiple roles by being both a State Home Care Case Manager Assistant as well as a Clerical Receptionist/Administrative Assistant.

I once again met with the endocrinologist at the hospital in the fall of 2017 where I decided to try Radioactive Iodine Therapy to try to end the Graves’ disease. In the winter of 2018, the Radioactive Iodine Therapy treatment was deemed unsuccessful, and I decided to go forward with the surgical removal of my thyroid which was done at the end of April of this year as the disease was progressively getting worse, and it was something that needed to be treated. Surgery was successful, and now I just take thyroid hormone replacement medication on a daily basis (Levothyroxine) to help manage and treat my hypothyroidism which is a lifelong condition. However, despite all the times of adversity, and all the times of stress and struggles, I have successfully found ways to remain resilient, as well as have the strength and the will power to persevere. I am very proud, because, this year, being 2018, despite my health issues, I feel I have triumphed not only because I was able to do a speaking engagement at another elementary school, and speak to nursing students from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy of Health and Sciences (MCPHS), but I was also able to have my voice heard at work as they are in the process of promoting autism and disability awareness to both consumers and employees to prevent misunderstandings and misperceptions of these groups of individuals, especially myself.

I have also went on to take additional professional and educational opportunities in my life (please check out my main page for more information about my additional credentials and experiences). I also had another seizure back in 2019 where I once again could not drive for 6 months, but I was resilient and persevered. I have also been battling generalized anxiety disorder and depression. I feel as though no matter what is thrown at me in life, I end up being relentless.

I have learned in my life to be grateful. Life is valuable. We all have stories to share, and issues to deal with, but continue to march forward in life. Also, everyone’s life starts at the very beginning with family. When you have a family that loves and cares for you so much, they will go above and beyond to do everything in their power to fight and advocate for the rights and the well-being of loved ones like my parents did for me which is why I am proud to say I am able to successfully advocate, and, at times, speak up for myself when absolutely necessary.

I will end my story with some final thoughts based on what I shared from my personal experiences, and what I use in my guest speaking engagements and disability awareness campaigns:

1.) Autism is NOT a disease, so even though someone has autism spectrum disorder doesn’t mean that they are going to make you sick (Autism is not a communicable disease).

2.) Individuals on the autism spectrum have trouble with nonverbal communication. If for any reason you hear or see something that is not appropriate, please be direct with them. Please! Please! Please!

3.) Individuals on the autism spectrum can be successful with proper support and treatment (my story is evident of that)! Don’t doubt any of them (that includes me)!

4.) Before you go about judging or criticizing someone negatively, listen to what the person has to say and try to imagine yourself in that person’s shoes. Individuals on the autism spectrum can think and perceive the world differently.

5.) Be friendly and understanding (and don’t be hurtful and cruel). Life is already difficult enough for them period. Form a friendship with them! Sit with them when they are alone (if they prefer your company)! Help them out when you can!

6.) A person is always a person first; not just a disability.

7.) Be grateful for where you all are in life (this is universal and applies to everyone)!

8.) Promote empowerment; decision making; and independence for people with disabilities.

9.) Patience and understanding are critical.

10.) If you don’t know something about someone’s disability or medical condition; learn more about it and do some research; or, talk to someone who has more information (when appropriate). If the person is comfortable disclosing their disability or medical condition, be an effective listener. The worst thing you can tell a person with a disability or medical condition is, “I don’t know what…is” or even, “I don’t know how to help you”. My suggestion would be simply to ask, “How can I help you?” or, “Is there anything I can do to support you?”

As Temple Grandin said in a quote, “The world needs all different kinds of minds to work together” as the unique talents and strengths of these people, especially with autism, are what unite communities, and, the world. Also, Dr. Stephen Shore once stated, “When you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.”

I will be honest, there are times when I am often misunderstood and have difficulty fitting in because of my differences with having autism, and I am sure that is the case for other individuals with autism as well. People with autism communicate, learn, and perceive the world in different ways, but at the end of the day, we are people too, and we deserve to be accepted into society. People with autism have strengths and have a lot to offer.

Autism should never just be looked at as a disability, but also an ability to innovate the world around us to promote change in a positive light.