Steinberg: Autism spins kids, parents

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Jasan is 6 years old. He loves printers, elevators, and anything that rotates. With that in mind, his mother, Heidi, and grandmother Sherry are spending the morning with him at the TLC Laundromat in Crystal Lake.

“He’s always loved washers and dryers, for some reason,” Heidi says.”Number one, it’s mechanical. It spins. He’s always loved spinning things, even when he was a little baby. I have a picture of him at his 1st birthday party, sitting in front of a fan. I didn’t know he was autistic then.”

Autism is a complicated brain disorder affecting about one in 68 children, according for the Centers for Disease Control. The cause is unknown, though genetics are definitely a factor. So is being male, like Jasan: five times more boys than girls develop autism.

Autism presents itself as a spectrum, ranging from severe, life-limiting disabilities — a quarter of people with autism are non-verbal — to those who display unusual-but-manageable quirks and mannerisms. Forty percent of people with autism have elevated intelligence.

“He’s been reading since mid-2s,” says Heidi. “Everything is by the brand name. Instead of calling the computer ‘the computer,’ he’ll call it whatever kind of computer it is. When he was smaller we’d be at store, he’d [point to the cash register and say], ‘Look mommy: it’s a Sharp. The cashier would be, ‘Did he just read that?’”


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Prodded, Jasan will greet a visitor, eyes downcast, then rush off to watch the laundry tumble in the dryers or to help customers. One woman gives him an annoyed glance and draws away. But Abby Krajewski, of Crystal Lake, immediately grasps the situation.

“Do you want to help me?” she coos, allowing Jasan to swipe her laundry card through the reader — he loves swipe cards, and his mother bought him a device on Amazon.

“I helped him,” Jasan reports back to his mother.

“Her,” she gently corrects — reading faces, expressions, genders can be difficult for people with autism.

Heidi is 38, a single mom, and works in a friend’s executive search firm, which gives her flexibility. She also lives at home with her mother, who helps with Jasan. I’m not using Heidi’s last name since the Internet is forever, and while there’s more awareness, there’s also still stigma associated with autism.

“His grammy is the only other person that can put him to bed. It’s very limiting,” says Heidi, who describes her life as being, at times, “there’s work and then Jasan. It’s not healthy. I don’t get to go out with my girlfriends or even go date.”

A baby sitter is out of the question.

“He would just flip out,” she says. “I’ve tried. When he was younger it was easier, there wasn’t so much destructive behavior.”

In spring 2014, she started a blog,, where she posts photos of her son and essays on the challenges of caring for a kid with autism.

“I just know how lonely I feel sometimes. And frustrated and wanting to be not in my life,” she says. “Writing lets me get it out.”

Jasan lets out a howl.

“Somebody is scaring me,” he says, his eyes frantic.

“It’s just the spin,” his mother says, gesturing to the washing machines.

“You want your headphones?” Heidi’s mother, Sherry Robillard asks, producing a pair of noise-reducing ear cups like a runway worker would wear. Those help.

The visit to the laundromat illustrates a dilemma facing parents of functioning autistic children. How much do you indulge their fixations and how much do you fight them?

“The kind of journey I would like to create with him is doing things like this, where we can do things I know he enjoys,” says Heidi. “We go to Best Buy or OfficeMax because he loves printers. He likes looking at the printers and pushing buttons. It might be extremely boring for me, so I take pictures of him and document him.

“I don’t want to force him to change,” Heidi said. “He doesn’t need to be a typical kid. If he wants to be on the elevator for two hours, that’s what we do. Letting him make his own decisions, then there is the fine line you still have to be in society.”

For the future?

“I think he’ll do something brilliant,” Heidi says. “Maybe a sound engineer. Some brilliant engineer. Right now, the challenge is to get him out of the laundry.”

That job falls to Robillard; Heidi has to go to work. About 1 p.m., after more than three hours there and a comforter that gets washed three times, Jasan is dragged out, resisting wildly.

“I raised two kids,” Robillard says. “It’s the strongest little will I’ve ever seen. Once he gets to that place, ‘This is bad and I don’t like it,’ we can spend an hour in a meltdown. You want to give in because his will is so strong, but you can’t.”

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