Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Teen helps ‘parent' younger, autistic siblings

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a freshman in high school seeking volunteer hours, Abbey Davison applied to work one night a week with Lucy and Jacob Schneider, two Brooklyn Park, Minn., siblings with autism. She was prepared for tough questions, and tough questions she got: What did she know about autism? "Not much, but let's give it a try!" she said. What activities might she do with Lucy and Jacob, then 2 and 3? "Play outside when we could," she answered. "Color, work on social skills." Most important, why did Davison want to work with Lucy and Jacob? "I love kids!" she said.

She got the job. What she wasn't prepared for was the griller himself: Lucy and Jacob's older brother, Luke, then age 9.

"Luke had a questionnaire for me," Davison recalled with admiration. "He watches out for them, supports them, plays with them. They depend on him." Now 21 and studying occupational therapy at the College of St. Catherine, Davison remains close to the Schneider family, still going to the house weekly to help out. Her respect for Luke, who will be 15 in two weeks, has only grown. "It's different for a 14-year-old to be like that."

It's a new year so here's a new idea: a household without sibling rivalry. Luke Schneider simply doesn't have time for it.

Luke was 8 years old in 2002 when 2-year-old Jacob had tubes placed in his ears because he wasn't responding to the world around him. His parents, Mary and Steve, feared he was deaf. Instead, he was diagnosed with severe autism which was later changed to moderate. Mary recalls "so many people" encircling the family in their living room to explain the diagnosis. All she wanted to know was, "Will he ever say, 'I love you'? Will he graduate from high school?" Seven months later, 1-year-old Lucy also was diagnosed with autism. Luke remembers his parents telling him that "life was going to be different from now on," he said. "Their brains are a little different and they can't always understand what you're saying."

That helped Luke understand why his little brother didn't interact "normally" with him, running away, avoiding eye contact, not knowing that when someone says "Hi" to you, you say "Hi" back. But even early on there were victories. "I was so happy when he learned to play hide-and-seek with me," Luke said of Jacob. He learned how to help Lucy, too, finding her blanket, pouring her orange juice and making her peanut butter sandwiches. "They're like a couple of old people," Luke said. "You have to repeat yourself a lot."


Luke is a bit of an old soul himself. He is smart, polite, soft-spoken, a self-professed computer geek. He didn't care much for the "distractions" of a typical high school, which led him to enroll full time this year at Insight School of Minnesota, a fully accredited online high school administered by the Brooklyn Center School District. Luke attends school at the computer in his bedroom from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., pulling A's and B's in classes such as English Literature, Algebra One and World History.

His teachers describe him as responsible, disciplined and curious, a perfect candidate for online high school. Science teacher Angela Tingey advises the NASA club and said that Luke "knew the names of all the Mars rovers. He knew which one Phoenix was and that Phoenix had 'died,' or at least that they had lost contact. He knew everything about it. I said that he should be teaching the class."

The online option also allows him to help his parents when life doesn't go as planned, which happens more than occasionally.

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