Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - 55

AUTISM
TOGETHER

A mother and
son-and a UVAled initiative-offer
insights into a
misunderstood
condition
BY KELLY CASEY

PHOTOS BY DAN ADDISON

A

t age 22, Adam Blalock
has a lot to be proud of.
In high school, he earned
his Eagle Scout, and last
May, he graduated with honors from
James Madison University. A few
weeks later, he was offered a coding
job from tech giant Microsoft.
As he prepared to move from
his Charlottesville hometown to
Seattle, he talked about his plans
and passions: "I'm deeply concerned
about the well-being of others; environmental issues; just giving people
work that they can be proud of; and
being equitable about the value we
place on work," he says, noting he
has no ambitious goals. "I just want
to do what I can to make this weird
thing we call 'society' work better."
Blalock is a fascinating young
man. He knows he has a "thing"
called autism but doesn't want to
be defined by it. When he was 3,
his parents' fears were confirmed
with a diagnosis of autism spectrum

disorder, which refers to a broad
range of conditions characterized
by challenges with social skills,
repetitive behaviors, speech and
nonverbal communication. "At the
time, Adam could sing whole songs
and repeat things word for word
that he would hear on a video. But
he had no functional language. He
couldn't answer yes-or-no questions," shares his mom, Fay Painter.
"He didn't have pretend play or joint
attention, which is a really big indicator of autism and means having
a desire to have other people interested in what you're interested in."

Not Rare as Once Thought

The year of Blalock's diagnosis was
2000-also the year the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
started tracking rates of autism. At
the time, Painter remembers being
told that her son's condition affected
1 in 5,000. But once the CDC started
tracking it, rates began to increase
year after year, and today it stands at
1 in 59 children.
Though the diagnosis was devastating, Painter and her husband quickly
realized how lucky they were to live in
Charlottesville. They had UVA developmental pediatric experts who were
able to define why Blalock-who had
been developing normally until about
age 1½-"started slipping away from
us between ages 2 and 3," Painter says.

"I kind of prefer
not to share my
diagnosis. I don't
necessarily want
to be defined by
it. I don't even
want to call it
a disability. If
I were to draw
attention to it,
it's almost as if
I'm asking the
other person
to treat me
differently
because of that
fact. I want them
to know me for
who I am."
-ADAM BLALOCK

Also in Charlottesville, they had
the state's only school for children
with autism. The Virginia Institute
of Autism (VIA) had a waitlist for
services, but a week after Blalock's
diagnosis, Painter and her husband
took the institute's three-day workshop on a behavior modification
program that was, and still is, the
most researched therapy for autism.
"Even with just us doing the therapy,
Adam had remarkable gains in a very
short time," Painter says. He continued therapy-and exceeded expectations-through public school.

Resource for a
New Diagnosis

Raising a son on the autism spectrum
gives Painter a unique perspective
and helped shape her career path.
She long served as president of the
Blue Ridge Chapter of the National
Multiple Sclerosis Society, but in
2013 she left the workforce to help
Blalock transition to college. In 2016,
she became the National Capital
Area Chapter executive director for
Autism Speaks. In October 2018,
she took a job at UVA that keeps her
closer to home and enables her to
share her life experiences. As a UVA
family navigator, Painter provides
support and guidance to local families facing a new diagnosis of autism.
She holds one of six navigator roles
created over the past two years at
VIM & VIGOR SPRING 2020

55



Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA

Contents
Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - Cover1
Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - Cover2
Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - Contents
Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - 2
Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - 3
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Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - 5
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Vim & Vigor - Spring 2020 - UVA - Cover3
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