Meet Skyler Bexten, a 22-year-old University of Montana senior majoring in computer science. Bexten was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at the age of 3 after he lost his sense of language. As part of coping with autism, Bexten enrolled in a horseback therapy program run by Bob and Timmy Burmood. He later volunteered with the program to help other autistic people.
How did the horseback therapy work? How does it help people with autism?
Bob’s idea was always that the motion of the horse would trigger the release of serotonin, which would calm down a lot of people. Kids would come in, they’d be wound up, but then after a few rides around on the horse, they’d be more relaxed, more calm, more collected.
So how did it help you personally?
It’s very hard for me to remember parts of my childhood, so going back to volunteer is like a repeat. In some of the kids, I saw reflections of myself. One of the major challenges for children with autism is that there can be trouble with movement or motion. So, one of the activities that Bob started doing after I left was throwing a football around with the kids for a few minutes before getting them on the horse. That way they learned how to catch the ball, throw it back, how to move their muscles. I never quite learned how to do it. Of course, there’s always the frustration. When you’re younger, when you’re still learning how to cope with failure, if you do something wrong, you take it personally. So what’s common for children on the spectrum and for some adults on the spectrum is that if you mess up a task, you could have a meltdown.
How do you calm down when that happens?
I haven’t had that issue for years, but it took a while. I remember when I was very young, once I started crying, I would always have to finish. But prevention is the best solution. One of the things that Bob told me that helped me was my mom’s sense of humor. Parents do matter a lot in raising a child with autism. Whenever I was having some challenge, some issue, my mom wouldn’t take it too hard. She’d always kind of laugh it off. She’d joke about it. She wasn’t communicating that it was okay, but she was communicating that it wasn’t the end of the world.
Could you describe the spectrum a little more?
For some people, autism is more severe. Others, like myself, have high-functioning autism. I was one of the lucky ones. I had issues growing up, but some people have it worse. For example, some of the kids in the program were completely nonverbal. They’d be 6, 10, 8 years old – never would say a word. Or if they did say a word, it’d be spoken very quietly, so that no one could hear it. There was one kid that I knew who had a chew toy. That apparently helped him cope with stress.
What are some other signs?
Another sign of autism, other than being nonverbal, is trouble with eye contact. It took me a while to get eye contact right. I had to consciously practice making eye contact when I was in high school. Some other signs to look for is if there’s orderly behavior – anything that has to do with order or patterns. When I was young, my mother would always find me lining up Little People toys. And she always found me lining up the same seven toys in the same order, the exact same queue every single time. Sometimes, she’d test me by swapping out two of them in place, then I’d see them and I’d always put them right back. Or sometimes, I would have a meltdown, when I’d come home, and my mom rearranged the furniture. I’m fine with it now, but it was horrifying when I was younger apparently.
What are misconceptions you feel need to be cleared up about autism?
There’s a lack of visibility or a miscommunication on what it’s actually like. A lot of people, when they hear about autism, they’ll point to somebody they saw on TV or an actor they think who has autism. I remember one woman who said, “Oh yeah. Jerry Seinfeld. He said that he thinks he has autism.” Yeah, Jerry Seinfeld isn’t a medical professional. Jerry Seinfeld is not a psychiatrist. Jerry Seinfeld is not a doctor. Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian. I don’t know what the numbers are right now, but I think it’s about 1 in 100 children will be diagnosed with autism. But people, for some reason, despite the growing population of autistic people in the United States and around the world, just don’t seem to know anybody who’s autistic.
Do you think it’s that people with autism are around, but other people just don’t recognize it?
That’s partially it. One of the most common reactions that people have, what people normally do in the store when somebody’s having a meltdown, is look away. So one of the challenges with parents with autistic children is: What do you do when your child throws a meltdown in the store, throws a meltdown at home? It’s not the child’s fault, it’s not the parent’s fault that they’re having a meltdown, but it can still feel embarrassing that so many people are watching you or consciously avoiding seeing you.
So it’s kind of up to each individual family how they handle meltdowns?
What Bob and Timmy told me, and I think that goes for anybody with any kind of therapy work with children, is that you’re not just treating the child. Sometimes you also have to treat the family. Some of the issues you start off with are the parents. There are parents who, I don’t know why, I don’t know what’s going through their minds, but they’ll be given explicit instructions on what to do to handle a specific behavior, and they’ll just ignore it.
How have you been challenged?
A few years back, and throughout most of my time growing up, my usual frustration with people would be that I didn’t understand them, I didn’t know how to talk to them, communicate with them, how to hold a conversation. People would say something that’d get under my skin, and I would just think about it over and over again. One of the most common traits of people with autism is obsessive behavior. What people with autism will usually do, is they’ll pick a subject and they’ll learn everything there is to know about it. So when I was younger, I loved Marvel Comics, and I memorized everything I could. At one point, I had an encyclopedia printed by Marvel. As I’m getting older, and I’m learning more about human nature and how people work, I feel like I get less frustrated with people. I still get frustrated, but you know, it’s not gonna keep me up at night.
What are some other struggles?
Most of the time, you can’t tell people anything directly, which is really hard for people with autism to understand because they prefer direct speak. That’s why a lot of people with autism struggle with metaphors. Imagine for a second that most people in your life are speaking a bizarre code, and you translate everything they say literally. One time, I was sitting in a theater with Bob Burmood because we were watching somebody’s play and he told me something that I didn’t understand, and he said, “Did that go over your head?” So what I did was I raised my head up, to see what he was talking about. Nothing will go over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it. Sarcasm also is difficult. People have told me that my sarcasm can be very subtle or not completely obvious. I had one guy joke with me that, “Skyler, your kidding is a little too serious. I mean, you could’ve been kidding the last two days, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.”
What are some resources you’ve noticed for people with autism? Do you know anyone else here with autism?
Well, I’ve never had to look because nowadays I hardly think about it – about having a diagnosis, about being autistic. Because at this point, I’ve adjusted well enough that it never really occurs to me. I’m usually thinking about some of my other issues, like school or more personal family issues.
Is there anything else you feel is super important to include?
“Rain Man” is fake. It’s not based on a true story. It’s Tom Cruise, what do you expect?
Interview by Courtney Brockman, UM Journalism Student