GREENFIELD — For the first time in her son’s life, Miriam Rolles isn’t always going to be around to explain his autism to those around him.
At 22 years old, Blake Schoaff is moving out of his mother’s home. Since Schoaff was a young boy, Rolles has been there to talk onlookers through his outbursts and to ask strangers to be patient with him. She’s always been around to remind Schoaff why something he did might be considered inappropriate by others.
Now, though, her son won’t be living under the same roof as her, making it difficult for Rolles to be there whenever Schoaff might need her.
It’s nerve-wracking, the Greenfield mother admits.
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And as organizations across the country mark Autism Awareness Month by seeking donations or holding events to raise awareness, Rolles is praying the people Schoaff interacts with as he gains his independence are understanding of her son’s differences.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of the most common intellectual disabilities, research shows, with one in every 68 children in the United States being diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Advocates say few of individuals living with the disorder go on to live what’s considered a normal, fulfilling life. The National Autism Indicators Report — released annually by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, which studies the lifespans of people living with autism — shows only one in five adults on the spectrum ever lives independently.
The disorder is complex, making it difficult for most people to accept or understand, experts say; it manifests itself differently in every person, with every case.
Schoaff, for example, can recall dates and numbers instantly, but he struggles to understand the importance of personal space, his mother said.
Ask Schoaff when The Walt Disney Co. first released “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and he can tell you the exact date and the movie’s length, Rolles said.
He wouldn’t, however, understand why knocking someone’s drink over or picking it up and taking a sip is inappropriate, she said. Further, he doesn’t recognize why he’d need to apologize for doing so.
Rolles said she’s spent every day of her son’s life advocating for him. Despite research and awareness efforts by national organizations that strive to help the world better understand individuals on the spectrum, her son’s disorder is still widely misunderstood, she said. And she wishes more people were accepting of individuals with disabilities.
“There are a lot of different things to deal with, but he’s a great kid,” she said. “He’s worth all of it.”
Schoaff was diagnosed with autism just before his second birthday, Rolles said.
One day, a flip switched in her toddler, she said.
Schoaff was developing like most young children. He learned to say words, like ball and cracker. He responded wide-eyed to the sound of his name.
Then that development suddenly stopped, Rolles said. She immediately knew something was wrong.
“He quit talking to me, quit looking at me. He started hitting the walls and screaming every night,” she said.
Behaviors like that lasted until Schoaff was about six years old, said Mike Rolles, Schoaff’s stepfather. Eventually, Schoaff started talking and making eye contact again. His fits became less frequent, but they still made going out to eat or on vacation difficult for the family.
For years, Miriam Rolles said she looked for a cure. She enrolled her son in every medical clinical trial she could find and signed him up for observations by research programs.
After what seemed like millions of doctors’ visits, she quit. She finally realized her energy would be better spent teaching others about autism, she said. So she joined organizations in the community, such as the Arc of Hancock County and Mental Health Partners, and started teaching her neighbors about Schoaff and his autism.
After he graduated from Greenfield-Central High School in 2015, Schoaff enrolled in the Erskine Green Training Institute in Muncie, a post-secondary education program for people with disabilities.
The institute places students in jobs at hotels, restaurants or hospitals in the city, where they learn job skills needed to work in hospitality, said instructor Brittany Bales, who worked with Schoaff.
Ball State University and disabilities advocacy organization the Arc of Indiana Foundation, along with other organizations, partner to offer the program. Its goal is to help people like Schoaff establish independence, Bales said.
Those with disabilities develop the confidence to interact with people in the community, to apply for jobs and earn a living, she said.
Gaining the courage to live on his own, however, was a bonus for Schoaff, Bales said.
“That doesn’t happen as often as we’d like,” Bales said.
But it could be more common if community members embraced those with disabilities, said Dennis Porter, the executive director of the Arc of Hancock County, a local awareness group.
Schoaff has a loving and supportive family willing to do whatever is needed to ensure his success and happiness, said Porter, who has known Schoaff’s family for many years. Not everyone is so lucky, Porter said.
The Arc of Hancock County regularly hosts events and discussions to help residents understand disabilities, including autism. Porter hopes increased awareness will lead to a more accepting community, where people with autism can experience an improved quality of life.
“They should be treated as individuals,” he said. “They are just a little different.”
What is autism?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to complex abnormalities in brain development, characterized by varying degrees of severity. People diagnosed with autism often struggle with social interactions and communication. Signs of the disorder usually start to appear between 2 and 3 years of age.
How common is autism?
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show one in every 68 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism. The disorder is more common in boys than girls; an estimated one in every 42 boys has autism compared to one in every 189 girls, studies show.
What causes autism?
There is no one cause for autism just as there is no one type of autism. Many experts believe people have a genetic predisposition to autism, and studies have identified some risk factors, including parental age during conception, maternal illness during pregnancy and complications during birth. Genetics in combination with risk factors appear to modestly increase the chances of autism.