Month: May 2012

Judge Erases $340K Student Loan Debt of Woman With Asperger’s

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Student loans discharged because debtor has Asperger’s

About $340,000 of debt were wiped away by Maryland judge

Baltimore County woman had about $340,000 in student loan debt discharged by a federal bankruptcy judge this month because Asperger’s syndrome prevents her from holding a job.

Carol Todd of Nottingham pursued college degrees “as a stepping stone toward a measure of liberation … and perhaps to help her achieve something closer to a normal life,” according to the May 17 opinion of Judge Robert A. Gordon, a bankruptcy judge for the District of Maryland. Asperger’s is an autism-spectrum disorder that is typified by problems with social interaction.

But the debt Todd racked up ended up complicating her life, Gordon said. He took a rare judicial step by deciding that the loans Todd took on were an “undue hardship.”

“It’s very difficult to discharge a student loan,” said Lawrence D. Coppel, a Baltimore attorney and founder of Maryland’s Bankruptcy Bar Association.

“The courts have applied a very strict standard to that exception,” said Coppel. “Most of the decisions that are published deny the discharge and refuse to find a hardship exception, even in cases where there’s clearly hardship — so the decision by Judge Gordon … is unique.”

Todd, who was 63 at the time of her student loan discharge trial in Nov. 2010, received a GED at 39 and began pursuing higher education.

She received an associate degree at Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University, and a bachelor’s degree at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, now Notre Dame of Maryland University. At Towson University, she obtained two master’s degrees.

She also enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law and Regent University, and took classes online at an unaccredited school. But after all that education, Todd was never able to keep a steady job.

“The thing to understand about Asperger’s is that it can impact people so differently,” said Barbara A. Bissonnette, a Massachusetts-based workplace coach for people with Asperger’s syndrome.

Some people with the syndrome can make six-figure salaries, she said, but many more have difficulty being successful in even entry-level positions.

It’s not uncommon for people with Asperger’s to be in financial straits, she said. Indeed, there seems to be an increasing number of educated people with Asperger’s syndrome who are having trouble finding work, Bissonnette said.

“Lately I’ve been seeing in my coaching practice many more young people, because there’s so much more awareness now and Asperger’s is diagnosed at a much younger age,” Bissonnette said.

When people are diagnosed at a younger age, they’re more likely to receive counseling and graduate from high school and college, she said. But those degrees don’t wipe away the social difficulties that people with Asperger’s face, which can be detrimental when they try to join the workforce, she said.

Todd could not be reached for comment. Frank E. Turney, a Catonsville-based attorney who represented Todd in her bankruptcy petition, did not respond to inquiries.

Marc E. Shach, a Baltimore-based attorney who represented one of Todd’s lenders, Access Group Inc., said his client is still reviewing the decision. He would not comment on whether Access Group intends to appeal the ruling.

Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for Maryland’s U.S. attorney’s office, which represented the U.S. Department of Education in the case, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

An attorney for Educational Credit Management Corp., a student loan guarantor that services loans during bankruptcy and that was also named as a defendant in Todd’s case, did not respond to requests for comment.,0,5262213.story


Teacher On The Spectrum Is A True Role Model

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Autistic teacher praised for work with students

Click this link to view the video:

LEE COUNTY -The need is growing in Lee County schools for Autism-related classrooms and teachers.

Next year the school district is adding four new programs for exceptional education services at Heights Elementary, Tortuga Preserve Elementary, Harns Marsh Middle, and Challenger Middle.

Pre-Kindergarten teacher at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts in Lehigh Acres, 33-year-old Harold Price, did not have those types of services growing up.

Now, he teaches kids with developmental disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“They just learn differently, they may need a couple extra seconds,” Price said.

Price has Asperger’s Syndrome. He struggled with social skills growing up but was exceptionally smart according to his mother who is also a teacher, Marie Price.

“Harold learned to read very early, it’s not until he was speaking that I realized he knew how to read, that was before age 3,” Marie Price said.

Social skills were harder to grasp, but Price worked at it and eventually got his teaching license.

He also helped in his mother’s classroom at Veterans Park.

“You would think sometimes when he’s working with them, I would have already jumped in and given them the answer, he’s much better at waiting them out,” Marie said.

When an opening came up for a teacher at the school, principal Dale Houchin knew Harold would be the best fit.

“He isn’t here for anyone but the kids, he has their best interests at heart,” Houchin said.

With his personal and professional teaching materials, Harold shows his class the most important lesson he has learned.

“I do believe the kids in my class are going to be capable of a lot of things,” Harold said. “Just give us a chance, just because we learn differently doesn’t mean we are less capable.”

Does Technology Make Us ‘More Autistic’?

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I have wondered this for a while, and want to pose this question to families on the Spectrum: do any of your other (neurotypical) children display some autistic-like, or Asperger-like behavior? With the onset of the Internet, mobile devices, texting and social media, it seems that this generation’s teens, tweens and to a lesser extent, children have less, and crave less face-to-face interaction with their peers.  Some will, in fact, go out of their way to avoid personal interaction. 

Like most parents, we grew up with friends that we went to school with; we played both sports and games with them, and generally hung together as we made our way through middle school/junior high school, high school and beyond.  We shared interests and made interpersonal bonds because we knew no other way. 

The advent of technology has given our children the ability to communicated with someone thousands of miles away but in doing so, it robbed them of their social skills: speaking and writing to one another.  One of my teenaged son’s handwriting resembles that of a grade schooler, often printing rather than writing in script; even when prompted to write in script, the letters often resemble the capital letter/lower case letter alphabet banners that hung on top of classroom blackboards.  Now, this isn’t entirely of his own choosing; he happened to be in school as they too embraced technology, and began requiring work to be typed or printed.  Reading his handwritten prose reminds me of reading the words my autistic son worked on so hard to produce, often with hand-over-hand guidance to form individual letters, words, and eventually sentences. 

This post is really about how this generation’s adults-in-waiting have shied away from social interactions.  They know all their friends email addresses and Facebook statuses, and even have their cellphone numbers, if only to send text messages to each other.  A common conversation in my house goes like this:

     Me: Did you call Jeffrey to hang out?

     Son: He didn’t answer me.  I texted him an hour ago. 

     Me: Why didn’t you call his house? Maybe he doesn’t have his phone with him.

     Son: (no answer; tries texting again)

     Me: (walks away, shaking my head in disbelief)

Our children are well-versed in texting, and mastered that skill years before I did, even before we had QWERTY keyboards or touchscreens on our phones.  They seem content to ‘reach out and touch someone’ electronically, but balk at the notion of actually conversing.  Anecdotally, it seems that my sons are more apt to send text messages, or email someone, as compared to their female cousins or peers, who seem to take to video chat apps like Oovoo or Skype, much more readily.   

Yesterday we went out to a local restaurant to eat because the High School Music Dept. made an arrangement with the restaurant to donate 10% of each bill that was accompanied by a special flyer.  Good food, good cause, and the place should be filled with many friends and acquaintances.  After dining, we urged our sons to go say hello to their friends who were in the adjacent area/within viewing distance. 

“No.”  “I don’t want to.”  “I don’t have anything to say.”  were the responses we got from them, even after significant prodding and cajoling. 

Despite their (relative) social disinclination, they are capable of, if not accomplished at, expressing themselves, either through music or sports, with their peers; a manifestation of hours/days/weeks/years’ worth of repetitive movement that they convey to each other.  Even participation in a team sport or musical group can be broken down into how each individual child performed.   Someone could argue that savant-like behavior is also exhibited within the Spectrum. 

There have been many blog posts and articles similar to this one, positing that in some sense we are all ‘a little bit Autistic.” Maybe it’s because I’m hypersensitive to Autism issues.  Maybe it’s because I have three boys and Autism has a preponderance for affecting males.  Perhaps they are this generation’s nerds, who will go on to become the next Bill Gates or Sheldon Cooper

Perhaps they’re just average teenagers trying to make their way, just like we did decades ago.  Hopefully years from now, they will look at their children/our grandchildren and remark “back in my day…”

Does technology promote Autistic behavior? I’m not sold; it certainly can exaggerate some classic manifestations of Autism or Asperger’s.  Certain too is that technology will help the children on the Spectrum, and that we can’t go back in time; my autistic son can now spontaneously share his artwork with his grandmother via his iPad.   A small step in socialization but a step in the right direction nevertheless.  Technology is, and always will be the magnifying glass for our society: revealing things not previously seen, including ways to improve ourselves and our children.

Emergency Workers Learn To Recognize Autism

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With Summer at our door step, children on the Spectrum will be flooding the parks, camps, local pools, malls and movie theaters, to name but a few places of respite from the heat.  While we would love to keep our children out of harm’s way; we need to be mindful that emergencies happen, and we need to know how to handle them, as well as communicate our children’s needs to emergency workers.  I would love nothing more than to have everyone trained, or at least cognizant of how to approach a child on the Spectrum during an emergency, but that’s simply not going to happen anytime soon.  But as parents we can make phone call to local legislators and police supervisors urging them to find out more about training their personnel.  An even easier method is to send a copy of this or other articles/blog posts so they can see what their constituents are concerned about.  For my EMS, PA, and other friends and blog followers who have already taken this step, Thank you.-Ed

Mass. Emergency Workers Learn To Recognize Autism

by DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press

WRENTHAM — Norwood Police Lt. Martin Baker begins his training session with a startling new government statistic: 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism or a related disorder.

Then Baker, whose son has autism, tells the class of 25 police officers, firefighters and other emergency response workers gathered at the Wrentham police station what they can do when they encounter someone with the disorder.

“Use calm, simple language,” he says. “Avoid touching or standing behind the person.”

But Baker knows it’s not as simple as that. So for the next three hours, he gives the group a crash course on how to recognize the signs of autism and how to adapt their usual emergency response techniques to help someone with the disorder.

Over the last eight years, hundreds of classes like Baker’s have been held around the state. The Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition, known as ALEC, has trained more than 15,000 emergency workers on how to respond appropriately when they encounter someone with autism, a broad spectrum disorder that affects normal development of social and communication skills.

Typically, the training features a police officer who has a close relative with autism and can describe expected behaviors and suggest ways to deal with people without using force.

Data released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that autism likely affects about 1 million children and teens in the United States. Its new figure of 1 in 88 children means the disorder is nearly twice as common as the government said it was just five years ago. Health officials attribute the increase largely to wider screening for the disorder.

For parents of autistic children, the training is a welcome relief.

Nancy Shea of Brookline says she worries her 22-year-old son, a college student who has social and communication difficulties, will have problems in any encounter with police.

She recalled an incident one night when her son was 17 and a neighbor called police on him and several friends who were talking loudly and doing cartwheels on the lawn.

“My son kept asking the police: ‘What’s wrong? What are we doing wrong? I really want to know what we are doing wrong,'” Shea said. “For someone like my son, that is legitimate. They don’t get the whole idea of appearing to be contrite and sorry because it’s 2 in the morning and you’re a bunch of teenagers making noise.

“I could see the police officer looking at my son. If I hadn’t been there, it could easily have escalated,” Shea said.

There have been several cases of people with autism being shot by police.

Last year, a jury awarded $1.7 million in damages to the family of an autistic man who was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer. According to testimony, the 2008 encounter began amicably, with Mohammad Usman Chaudhry chatting with officers about his shoes and how he stayed dry when it rained. But moments later, an officer shot Chaudhry. Police say Chaudhry pulled a knife on the officer and lunged at him.

In 2007, a Miami teenager who was autistic died after police officers restrained him following an outburst at his home. And in Calumet City, Ill., a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, was shot and killed by police in February. Police said the boy cut one of the officers with a kitchen knife, and the officer thought his life was in danger.

Dennis Debbaudt, considered the guru of autism trainers for law enforcement, did his first training session for police in Detroit in 1995 and his organization has held classes since then for police departments around the country. He said Massachusetts has one of the most active programs.

Debbaudt, who has a son with autism, said one of the biggest difficulties is that people often do not exhibit obvious signs of the disorder and police may be suddenly taken aback by an unusual movement or reaction.

“If a law enforcement officer came to a scene where someone wouldn’t look them in the eye and repeated what the law enforcement officer said … you could easily make a judgment — without knowing it’s autism — that there’s somebody who must be hiding something,” Debbaudt sad.

“A family’s greatest fear is that no one will know and our son or daughter won’t be able to explain, or they will run off or close in on someone’s space. This is how people get hurt.”

Martin tells the officers in his class that they must always do what they need to do to keep themselves safe, but he also offers them techniques to help calm autistic people, who can become agitated at the sounds of sirens and dealing with police.

He also tells his class that autism appears differently in different people. Some people with autism are high-functioning; some need help with everyday activities. Some are talkative; others are non-verbal. Some don’t like to be touched; others stand too close.

“What might work for one might totally set off another,” he said.

Wrentham police officer Derick Cassidy nodded his head throughout Martin’s class. His 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism last year. Cassidy said he appreciates the training as a father and a police officer. He’s had to respond to calls for two autistic brothers in town who tend to walk around late at night.

“We’ll go there and say: ‘You’ve got to head home. You’re making people nervous.’ But we do it in a gentle way,” Cassidy said.

ALEC training coordinator Bill Cannata said the program began at the urging of parents who were concerned that first responders would not know how to deal with their children on emergency calls. Cannata, a Westwood fire captain, has trained fellow firefighters, emergency medical personnel, police and county sheriffs.

ALEC did a training session for state police at Boston’s Logan International Airport last month. About a week afterward, one of the state troopers said he saw someone in the airport who he initially believed was behaving suspiciously but soon realized he was dealing with someone with autism.

“He de-escalated the situation,” Cannata said. “This story repeats itself all the time. The training pays off.

“Mission To Lars” Hits Home

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The movie that tells my daughter’s story

A documentary about an autistic man finally meeting his heroes – the rock band Metallica – uncannily mirrors Andrew Perry’s family situation.

Tom Spicer in 'Mission to Lars’ - The movie that tells my daughter’s story

Tom Spicer in ‘Mission to Lars’  
It’s not often that you read about a forthcoming film and it seems to resemble your own life. But so it was for me and the documentary, Mission to Lars, in which a London-based journalist tries to realise the dream of her autistic brother by arranging for him to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer from the heavy metal band, Metallica.

I’ve been a journalist for 20-odd years, writing about rock music for a variety of titles, including the Telegraph. My hectic, arguably frivolous career was cast in a sobering new light with the arrival of my first daughter, Rose, in February 2007. Within 20 minutes of her birth, it was made clear to my wife and me that she was not “normal” – she was floppy, unresponsive, and not crying enough.

She was whisked off for tests, but despite numerous investigations over the ensuing years, she remained undiagnosed, but for a catch-all term: global developmental delay. This means she is behind in all aspects of development and learning. Finally, last autumn, she was identified as “probably” falling within the autism spectrum, due to her difficulties in picking up on social clues.

All this medical palaver has obviously been trying at times, as well as time-consuming and demoralising. Rose herself, however, is a joy, not just for us as parents, but for everyone who comes into contact with her. She lights up the room with smiles, laughter and affection. For all her social and physical difficulties, there really is no getting gloomy around Rose.

Needless to say, these past few months our ears have pricked up at any mention of autism. And when I read the press release for Mission To Lars, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Attending an advance screening, I was out to glean so much from it. Would the autistic brother’s behaviour match Rose’s?

Mostly, I wanted to see how the family coped with the brother’s disability – both in the context of his sister’s journalistic work, and their experiences in the world of rock, where coolness is king, with little consideration for life’s unfortunates.

Mission to Lars is deeply moving, laugh-out-loud funny and sky-scrapingly life-affirming, with a feelgood ending that had not only me blubbing into my hankie. The promotional posters even carry a quote from the leathery emperor of heavy metal, Lemmy, saying, uncharacteristically: “I cried.”

Tom Spicer, we learn, suffers from Fragile X syndrome, which causes learning difficulties and which may also give rise to autistic symptoms. Forty-year-old Tom exhibits some classic autistic behaviour – social anxiety, difficulty making eye contact and communication problems. One of his behavioural tics for the past 20 years had been to repeat, over and over again, the words: “When am I going to meet Lars?”

Finally, his younger sister, Kate, cracks, and decides to arrange a meeting. Using connections through her job at a national newspaper, she contacts Metallica’s organisation and sets it up for Tom to attend three shows in the US. The plan thus involves taking Tom out of his familiar care-home environment in Exmouth, flying to America, and travelling many miles between gigs in a rented Winnebago.

It was obvious to me from the off that this was a hare-brained scheme. One thing we’ve come to realise about Rose is that she likes routine, and hates any break from it.

Initially, Tom refuses to leave the care home. When they eventually arrive for the first night in Las Vegas, he refuses to go to the show. The first half hour is unflinching, as Kate and Will, Tom’s younger brother, who is holding the camera and made the film, face up to the fact that, through their busy working lives, they’ve lost touch with their disadvantaged brother, and don’t really understand him. I began to find myself mentally ticking boxes: yup, I know that one – feelings of helplessness, and guilt for leading your own life as if nothing were wrong.

With Tom resolutely staying away, Kate goes to the first concert anyway, and makes quite a night of it. The following morning, she wears sunglasses, looking peaky. That box I’ve definitely ticked. I doubt that there are statistics for people who binge-drink to numb the pain of looking after a handicapped relative, but I suspect the percentage would be high. The rueful, washed-out look on Kate’s face got plenty of laughs in the screening I attended. For me, it was all too near the knuckle.

One of the most difficult aspects of having Rose has been about how much I should change my own lifestyle in response to her. After the initial shock of the first few months, I did a lot of thinking. Quite apart from having to return to work to pay for nappies and food, it was a matter of realising that life had to go on, even though it would never be the same again. I gradually came to the conclusion, for better or worse, that you owe it to your children to be yourself, and to be the best that you can. Suddenly leading a hermetic, grim-faced existence, to me, seemed to be dishonest, and selling Rose short.

However, in my own line of business, the chasm between the hell-raising of the rock world, which I always unashamedly adored, and the new reality of MRI scans, medical consultations and pleas for state financial support, has often seemed nigh-on unbridgeable. Emotionally, it takes its toll.

Similarly, I feel guilty when the fluctuations in my workload, over which I rarely have control, impinge on Rose’s routine. Even after five years, I feel bad rushing off into town to see a band play without having read her bedtime stories. Put simply, I worry that my child with learning disabilities and my life are irreconcilable.

My wife and I have chosen to play our cards close to our chest. Initially, we deferred telling people about Rose until we had a diagnosis – it almost seemed unfair to say there was something untoward without being able to tell them what it was. Now I feel ashamed at having been so cagey about the light of my life. Finally coming clean and writing these words feels like a release; very therapeutic.

As the film proceeds, it seems that Tom will never be able to face having his wish fulfilled for him; that rock and autism really are mutually exclusive. However, it gives nothing away to say that Tom’s dream comes true. The closing scenes, at the final concert, in Anaheim, California, are almost overwhelmingly life-affirming. Lars, who has a reputation for arrogance, proves to be just wonderful with Tom, and invites him to join the band as they walk out onto the stage.

As Tom, grinning from ear to ear, headbangs along with everyone else to the band’s biggest hit, Enter Sandman, the message is clear: rock includes everyone in its celebration, and that music has a thrilling, magical power, especially for those who most need healing.

Three years after Rose, her sister Georgia was born. With a 1-in-20 chance of an undiagnosed disability repeating in subsequent children, enlarging our family was a tough decision; we decided to go for it, and little Georgia has turned up “normal”. She’s a feisty livewire, in stark contrast to Rose’s placid, sunny temperament.

We greet Rose’s every developmental milestone with double the pride. There was a new high in January, just before her fifth birthday. After months of crawling, bumshuffling and prevarication, Rose suddenly started walking. To my joy, she loves tuneful punk rock and has been weaned on the Ramones and the Lurkers.

Every day, Rose is the star of our own private movie. As for Tom, since meeting Metallica he now has a cool haircut, and has become more confident socially. One day, unprecedentedly, he walked out alone from his care home and caught a bus into Exeter. Devon police eventually found him in Plymouth. Asked on his return where he’d been, he replied simply: “Out.”

As rock music has been proclaiming for 60 years now, there is a free spirit in all of us. I can’t wait for Rose’s blossom, too.

 What is Fragile X syndrome?

 Fragile X syndrome (FXS), the condition suffered by Tom Spicer, is a genetically inherited disorder involving a mutation of a gene on the X chromosome called FMR1 (fragile X mental retardation 1). The gene’s function is to create a protein needed for the brain to develop normally, but if damaged it makes too little of the protein or none at all. Diagnosed by a blood test, FXS affects one in 4,000 boys and one in 6,000 girls. As boys have only one X chromosome, the disorder is likely to affect them more severely.

Fragile X can cause a range of symptoms, including developmental delays and learning disability. It is also the most common known genetic cause of autism and can cause symptoms such as short attention span, dislike of eye contact, difficulty in relating to other people and the need for routine.

Speech and language therapy, as well as treatments for behavioural disorders, can improve the lives of Fragile X syndrome sufferers, but there is no medical cure.

True Humanity at its finest

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He Doesn’t Allow His Autism To Define Him

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Lawrence Woodmere Aacdemy’s Tristan Braverman knows how to overcome challenges
Lawrence Woodmere Academy junior Tristan Braverman, center, who has autism, credited his parents, Steve and Stacy, for providing him with early-intervention therapy as a child, which greatly improved his social skills.







Tristan Braverman, a junior and a varsity basketball player at Lawrence Woodmere Academy, used to blend in with the rest of the student body, but after being featured in the May/June issue of ESPNHS magazine, his teammates and fellow classmates learned something about him they didn’t know.

When Braverman, now 16, was 15 months old, his parents, Stacy and Steve, would call his name but he wouldn’t respond. “The doctor told me to put his high chair in the kitchen, facing away from me, and to go up behind him and slam pot covers together to see if he would respond — and he didn’t move,” Stacy recalled. “We thought he was deaf.”

Doctors performed several tests on Tristan, and he was diagnosed with autism, which affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. The Bravermans, who live in Merrick, signed up for early-intervention services and fought to get their youngest son all the services they could. “It was the mid-1990s, so autism was relatively new,” Steve said.

On the Internet, Stacy found a doctor in California who said that applied behavior analysis therapy — teaching social, motor, verbal and reasoning skills to children who might not learn them independently, as other kids do — was the only way children with autism would improve. “There were five or six therapists in my house for eight hours a day,” she said. “I didn’t get out of my pajamas. In my downtime I took over between therapists, and it seemed like forever, but eventually he started talking.”

This school year was Tristan’s first year on the varsity basketball team, and he never felt the need to tell his teammates about being autistic. “It just happened to come up in the [ESPNHS] article,” he said. “It brought more attention to it. They were all surprised, but it doesn’t matter if they know, because no one notices anything different about me.”

The team’s coach, Jeff Weiss, said that if he didn’t know about Braverman’s autism, it would be hard to know he had any condition. “It’s truly amazing what this young man has achieved on the basketball court,” Weiss said. “In some ways, maybe it forces Tristan to concentrate more than the next kid, but we all treat Tristan like one of the guys, as he is completely dedicated to the game of basketball and to our team.”

 Braverman credits his parents for taking the initiative to get him early-intervention therapy to help him develop social skills. “The majority of autistic kids are not able to socialize with people, and I’m able to make friends,” he said. “I give my parents a lot of credit because they got me what I needed.”Looking at the videotapes of her son working with therapists as a child, Stacy gets choked up as she realizes how far he has come. “In the beginning, when he was diagnosed, a neurologist told me he was going to have to be put in a home because we won’t be able to restrain him when he has outbursts,” she said. “I told myself it didn’t matter what I had to do, I’d do it. I took that as a challenge, and now I look back at the videos in amazement.”Tristan said he hopes to serve as an example for parents with autistic children. “Because I got the treatment I got, that is why I am the way that I am now,” he said. “Get whatever you can and do everything in your power to try and fix it.”With the end of his high school career nearing, Braverman’s dream is to become a professional basketball player, but he has other plans, too, if that doesn’t work out. “I’m planning to study medicine in college,” he said. “Science has always interested me and I’m good at it.”Whichever career path he chooses, his parents are there to support him along the way. “He’s easygoing, and I feel better letting him venture away from the house,” Stacy said. “He takes everything in stride, and I feel like I don’t have to worry about him.