Last week, I attended OCALICON 2013. Boy, was I out of place. The conference is a national conference and exhibition on autism, assistive technology and low-incidence disabilities (including visual impairments, hearing impairments and more). I know next to nothing about autism. I was asked to attend the conference as a PR representative from the PRactice. The PRactice is a student-run public relations firm at The Ohio State University. I am an Account Associate at the firm. My job was to attend two guest speakers at the conference, writing blog posts for OCALI. A large group of students were also responsible for drafting tweets for Ohio Autism account.
This was my first “big girl” PR event. I dressed up, put on a smile and boarded the COTA bus to the Convention Center in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
I was surprised how much I learned in six short hours. More importantly, my eyes were opened to a world that I had never experienced. I love when the Lord blesses me with cool opportunities like this.
Here is one of the blog posts I wrote for OCALI. This experience was too amazing not to share.
“Look at me now,” said Coty Marks, 22 year-old college student on the autism spectrum. “I enjoy long walks on the beach, playing video games and drinking with friends.”
On Nov. 20, Coty gave his first presentation to a group of 25 curious spectators at OCALICON 2013. With confidence, Coty told us his story.
Autism, according to Webster, is a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.
At a young age, Coty was placed on the autism spectrum. He was originally diagnosed as “severely retarded,” unable to verbally communicate to those around him. After hours of one-on-one attention, Coty spoke his first sentence at the age of 13.
His mother, Judy Marks was moved to tears. After years of IEPs and struggling to hear “I love you” from her only son, they had finally made progress. Judy remarked that Coty has spent more than 10,936 hours (and counting) working on communication and integrating into society.
For Coty, and many others on the autism spectrum, the key to successful communication is asking specific questions. His mother noted asking, “how was your day at school?” never elicited a response. Instead, she asked Coty what he did at school while eating pizza with his friends at lunch, would more likely get an answer.
From that moment on, Coty began to make remarkable improvements. His mother fought for Coty, attempting to give him the quality of life he deserved.
“You can’t really outgrow your disability,” said Coty, “you learn to adapt.”
Adapting is the hardest part of living with autism. From learning hidden curriculums in school to driving a car, Coty was determined to make improvements. In college, the hidden curriculum includes things like: what happens when I skip class, what is appropriate public behavior, who you tell about your disability, etc.
After an extra two years of high school, working on social skills, Coty was ready for college. When he began the the extra two years, he started at a new school. He attributed much of his success to this “fresh start.”
“The hardest part of living with autism is making friends,” said Coty.
With the ability to begin at a new school Coty was able to tell who he trusted about his diagnosis. He was no longer bullied; making friends became much easier. His male mentor also played a big role in his transition process. This gave him the confidence to transition into college.
“Guys relate to guys,” said Coty. “We like to fist bump, flirt with girls and talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
In college, he studies computer science engineering. His mother attributes his success in college thus far to “backward planning.” This is when a student begins with a goal, then works backward to figure out how to reach the goal.
“We take one step at a time,” Judy said. “Right now, we are focused on graduation.”
Coty frequently has friends stay over, enjoying the companionship he has desired his entire life. When he graduates, Coty envisions himself owning a house and starting a family. He hopes he can continue to present his story, encouraging other students and families who are affected by autism.
I asked him what he would tell people if he was able to relay one message to the world. A big smile spread across his face.
“Never give up,” said Coty, “no matter what the cost.”
Check out OCALI’s website for the PowerPoint the Marks used for their presentation and more information on Coty and Judy.
What do you think? Did Coty’s story inspire you?