Derek’s Dry Erase Board

My brother is a creature of habit.  Scratch that.  He is THE creature of habit.  Perhaps it has something to do with the autism (sarcasm alert… It has everything to do with the autism).

He was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old.  He’s 35 now, and while he does talk (now), it’s not his fave activity… Fave activities would include swimming, painting, bowling, basketball, playing with the dog, watching game shows, and “driving” on Google street view… things at which he greatly excels.

I could really go on and on about his awesomeness, but I won’t.  Wait, yes I will… This is MY blog!

Ok, ready?  Derek brag-fest begins now:

  • Derek swims 50 laps twice a week and he hasn’t slowed down a bit since turning 35.  He’s also on a gold medal winning team and practices with them weekly.
  • He’s a Special Olympics swimmer and comes home every year with a neck covered in bling (that’s gold and silver medals,y’all).
  • He’s an excellent bowler, on a winning team, and his highest score was a 234 (but this wasn’t the first — or last — time he was in the 200 club).
(This happened the same year a certain president made a major gaffe about low scores in Special Olympics bowling.  That’s all I’ll say about that.)
  • He’s a brilliant artist!  Aside from being good at original works, he does nearly perfect copies of Van Gogh works.  His version of “Starry, Starry Night” is magic (I’ve heard before that Van Gogh may have actually had autism… So I assume there’s mystical link here).
(See what I mean?)
  • Derek knows a bounty of trivia about Hanna Barbera cartoons.  Just ask him.
  • Derek has a savant kind of knowledge of pop music, specifically from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.  (He hasn’t quite caught up with the top 40 from the past ten years.)  Honestly, he knows things he really shouldn’t know considering that my family doesn’t have that large of a music collection.  For songs from these eras, he can usually tell you the name of the song, the artist or band, the year it came out, and the name of the album.  Spooky.  But good luck getting these answers out of him — he might give you a freebie, but more than one answer and it’s like you’re redeeming a voucher or exceeding a quota or something.  Usually the red light phrase is “No more music questions, please.”
  • He’s like a living calendar of practically everything that has happened in his 35 years on this planet.  “Derek, when was the last time we went to T.G.I.Friday’s?” “December 7, 2011.” “Derek, when did you last see Aunt Kathy?” “January 18, 2009.” “Derek, when did you fall out the second story window of the Birmingham house and land in a magnolia bush unscathed?” “August 7, 1981.”
  • No alarm clocks for Derek:  He just wakes up when he’s supposed to, whether it be 5:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m.
  • Derek didn’t talk until he was about 8 years old, and even then, it was after A LOT of speech therapy.  The end result is that he has perfect English (no accent at all, which is pretty remarkable considering that he grew up in Alabama and was raised by two people from East Tennessee).
  • Those who spend time around him say he has a “calming effect.”  He’s definitely harnessed his chi.  Old news.
  • Derek is a high school graduate!  He did it!!!

That list is just a small sampling of his skillz.

But for all his awesomeness, there are definitely some things he struggles with on a day-to-day basis…

  • Derek has to take lots of medicine for epilepsy and allergies.  His morning and nightly pill routine takes about 30 minutes (each).
  • Derek hates mayonnaise.  So much.
  • Derek hates sour cream.  SO MUCH.
  • Derek has a serious fear of pine cones (thanks to some meanie headed neighborhood kids who threw pine cones at him back in the day).
  • Derek doesn’t like to talk.  My mother does.  This can be challenging for both parties.
  • Derek has autism/ninja hearing — even though he’s half deaf — so he picks up on certain frequencies and sounds that the rest of us don’t hear.  Sometimes that means there’s a lot of hands over ears and humming to drown out the cacophony .
  • Derek is often in his own world, which means that having a relationship with him, whether family or friendship, is a one-way street.  He does love us, his family, in the way that he can, but there’s not a lot of mutual hugging, warmth, or “I love you”‘s.  He still views Josh, my husband, as an outsider even though Josh and I have been together for eight years.
  • He is technically “high functioning,” but not enough that he can live on his own or hold down a full time job (or any job, at the moment).
  • Derek is extremely good-natured and as innocent as a young child.  This can be a very dangerous thing in the outside world, so he has to be supervised most of the time.
  • Derek doesn’t like to talk, and he didn’t start until I was born — so, when he was about 7 years old.  Aside from effecting day-to-day life, it has  proved especially difficult for Josh and I since we moved.  Without frequent visits, the only way to maintain a relationship long distance is by phone, and with Derek, this is basically impossible.  I don’t usually get more than three minutes out of him on the phone before he’s had enough.  (By the way, he’s not hateful about it, he usually just says “Let me talk to Teresa.”  In Derek-speak this means, “I want you to talk to Teresa (so I can stop talking).”)
  • Derek has his own unique way of saying things (like I mentioned above).  It can be amusing, but it can also be very frustrating and exhausting, especially when the meaning is unclear both ways.
  • Derek will sometimes respond “Yes” to every question asked of him if not prompted otherwise.

I don’t mean for this to get sad or depressing.  It’s not (for us anyway).  We love Derek (and anyone who meets him instantly loves him, too).  It’s just that autism, for all of the hype that the media attaches to it (it’s like a weird meme/fad thing nowadays), it can be a very complicated disorder.  And when my brother was diagnosed in the early 80’s, it was still a relatively new diagnosis (it wasn’t too much earlier in history that people with autism were misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and thusly medicated and insitutionalized).

However, for all of the difficulties and challenges that accompany Derek, there are far more joys and blessings.  And there’s never a dull moment.  We often tell Derek he’s the sweetest, to which he says “I’m sweeeet,” holding out the “ee” part a little longer than normal.  If you ask him “Who’s the man?” he will unfailingly respond “Derek,” or “meeee….” (again with the “ee” sound).  It’s hilarious and wonderful and perfect.

Ok,…what does this all have to do with a DIY/penny pinching blog?  Not too much.  Today’s blog post is 90% self-indulgent.  Honesty.  BAM.  But, I do have a little DIY somethin’ somethin’ if you’ve held on this long…

While Derek is sort of an automated calendar/schedule machine, there are a few things that fall to the wayside, particularly keeping his bedroom and bathroom clean.  We’re not talking unsanitary conditions or anything, just crazy clutter, a little more dog hair on the carpet than needed, and a bathroom mirror that’s so dusty and toothpaste splattery that it looks like someone sprayed it with that fog stuff people use on house hunting TV shows or when sitting shiva.

So, since I’m in Atlanta this summer and happen to have a penchant for organization, I decided to try to help him with this.  Combining his love for schedules and clocks, I decided to list all of the steps involved with maintaining a clean bathroom.  (And to those who are curious, autism doesn’t affect Derek’s motor skills in any way.  In fact, he’s a much more thorough cleaner than most people I know… when he puts his mind to it.  So no “awww….but he has autism” crap.  Disability, Schmisability.  Derek is smart and capable.)

Ok. Ok. DIY time:

I spray painted an unfinished wooden frame from Dollar Tree.  (HobLob had a sale on spray paint, so what’s a girl to do?!)  Then I typed out a list, pretty-fied it in PicMonkey, and printed it off.  After framing it in, here’s the end result:

The idea is that he can do all of this in about 20 minutes, once a week.  When each task is complete, he can check it off the list.

The last task is to erase all check marks and repeat again next week.

When I first showed it to Derek, there was a lot of “fussing” as he calls it, but when I got my parents on board, they were able to mollify the situation.  This initiative is still in its Beta stage, so I can’t speak to its effectiveness, but I have high hopes.

I’ll keep you posted!

(“What’s autism?” you ask.  Well, in case you’re late to the party, here’s a helpful website:  The Autism Society.)

6 thoughts on “Derek’s Dry Erase Board

  1. GIRL. You know, of course, that this post has a very special place in my heart. I have always adored Derek and remember crying the first time he hugged me. He is amazing and such an inspiration, as is your whole family. Thank you so much for sharing more of his life with us; what a great way to start my day. LOVE you.

  2. Courtney, I know what a sweet brother you have. I laughed when u mentioned all the facts he knows. I know he will remember all my dogs and all the colors of my house when he came to Dot’s house. He is amazing and I love Derek and all of you so much. He has an amazing family and all of you have been wonderful to him. GO DEREK GO.

  3. Courtney, this is so beautifully written and touching. Have you considered putting together a book proposal about all you’ve experienced growing up as Derek’s little sister? Surely with all the friends and contacts you’ve made in New York someone knows a literary agent who would see the value of such a book and do the grunt work of finding a publisher for you.

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