article: autistic woman shares her wisdom

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16 Apr 2005, 7:41 pm

Autistic woman shares her wisdom

She learns from her kids', her own struggles, teaches many others about disorder

By Jewell Cardwell

Sadly but fortunately, Sondra Williams had to give birth to her children before she was able to give birth to her true self.

While her life is still far from easy, it no longer is spinning out of control.

For that, Williams feels blessed.

She also can take comfort in knowing her struggles and triumphs are having a positive difference on those who, like her, are living with autism.

The 42-year-old Columbus woman isn't just the parent of two children with autism and two others with a dyslexic view of the world; she, too, is autistic.

Curiously, Williams wasn't diagnosed until she was 38.

From the age of 13, Williams bounced around like a pinball -- in and out of various mental health facilities. She never knew what made her so unlike everyone else.

She remembers always being an isolated learner and terrified of school.

As she got older, her problems seemed to grow in scope.

``I be misdiagnosed with severe depression with psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar,'' Williams said.

Because of her severe fidgeting, pacing and lack of eye contact and social communication, the Richland County native recalled several instances of being snatched off the street by police officers and carted off to psychiatric hospitals.

``They not be understanding me,'' she said in a plaintive voice.

``She knew inside -- like many people with autism -- what she wanted to say but the words were disconnected,'' Williams' friend and support person Karen Mastriani interjected.

From a distance, Sondra Williams -- a petite woman with medium brown, shoulder-length hair -- looks like the picture of health and happiness.

A closer encounter suggests something different. Her conversation is hurried and often hard to follow.

``No one be knowing what was wrong with me,'' Williams said, staring off into space.

``They thought I be a danger to myself or to others.''

As a result, Sondra Williams spent long stretches at various mental health centers.

``I be taking 122 pills a week,'' Williams reminisced. ``My fingernails be grayish blue. When I get out, I be quit taking the medicine, threw the pills in the trash.

``The medicine be making me gain 70 pounds. I be thought it was making me much sicker.''

Many times Williams' husband of 18 years would return from his job to an empty home, only to hear later that his wife was locked away in a hospital.

So great was her pain that Williams considered suicide.

``I be trying to find a way to die,'' she said. ``My brain be wanting me to drive my car off the bridge. But I be wanting to be my children's mommy again. So, I be wanting to find answers.''

And find answers Sondra Williams did -- for herself, her family and the autism community at large.

Clarity through children

Curiously, that didn't happen until two of her four children -- Missy, now 11, and Michael, now 13 -- were diagnosed with autistic disorder.

Because Williams was able to see many of her children's behaviors in herself, she began to press Dr. Emilio Amigo, a Columbus clinical psychologist, for a diagnosis, which she got.

Williams, who is classified as high-functioning autistic, definitely sees a genetic component at work in her family.

``He be my hero person and my stabilizer in life,'' Williams said of Amigo.

For starters, she's learned from him various skills that prevent her from going into crisis.

``When she feels like she's shutting down, she lets us know,'' Mastriani said. ``Sometimes all she needs is just a nap.''

During a visit to Grand Rapids, Mich., Williams said her brain was telling her, ``You be needing a hot dog.'' It wasn't until she got the hot dog that ``my sensory being calming down and I be centered.''

Going into crowded, loud public settings can trigger an anxiety attack.

``My whole gait be different and my language be regressing,'' Williams volunteered.

Her other two children -- 17-year-old Aimee and 16-year-old Isaiah -- were diagnosed by another clinical psychologist with Asperger's syndrome, which is part of the autism family.

All, including Williams, are receiving various therapies in order to better navigate their lives.

Williams also is an active lobbying voice within the autism community as a member of Gov. Bob Taft's Task Force on Autism and a board member of the Autism Society of Ohio. She's also a classroom aide for an 11-year-old girl with autism.

``I also be able to help professionals from an autistic's view so they can be learning inside views from us,'' Williams said.

She said the Yahoo Internet users group Connecting2worlds represents a good blend of the autistic spectrum.

``One of my favorite people be a woman in Sweden who is a preacher,'' Williams said. ``She's having a hard time to find a church to be taking her. It has to do with that social thing about us.''

Autistic people typically are extremely introverted and have a difficult time communicating.

Circle of support

Williams credits much of her successes to Dr. Amigo, ``who doesn't see me as a broken person,'' her children, her Internet pals and Karen Mastriani.

``Karen is my one and only true real-life friend who accepts me as I be in life and is not out to change or alter me but help and support me.''

Mastriani, a former special education teacher who went into the field of vocational support for people with special needs, calls Williams her ``pro bono'' (free) work.

Williams' husband is also supportive.

``He's always been there to stand by me,'' she said.

``Sometimes he be saying, `Sondra, you be driving me nuts,' '' Williams teased, a smile taking over her face.

Long before there was a diagnosis, Williams said, her husband accepted her differences.

``He just be thinking that I was just an extremely shy person with speech problems,'' she said of the man she met at church.

Her husband -- who due to the sensitive nature of his job didn't want to be identified -- does most of the family's cooking and baking. ``He be cracking eggs like Julia Child,'' Sondra Williams said.

``Cooking is hard for me to process,'' she continued. ``I can't always get cans opened. I be burning things. And I do repetitive meals because of the autism. So, we be eating out a lot.''

Mostly, Sondra Williams likes being ``a speaker girl.''

Williams also likes being among Dr. Amigo's group.

The latter, she said, ``makes me feel validated.''

Who among us doesn't want and need that?

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or [email protected]