Luke Barta is a bright, happy eight-year-old with a passion for the animal world, dinosaurs, reading and spending time outdoors. He likes his teacher and classmates at McKinley elementary, and is learning new things every day. All of these things are very typical for kids his age, and they all come together to help make him who he is. But there is one other, very important facet to his character that is crucial to completing the complex personality that is Luke. And that is Luke’s autism.
Luke is mostly non-verbal, so his mom, Sarah spoke with us in his place. During the interview, portraits of Luke and his 10-year-old brother, Nolan were visible behind her. She is unmistakably proud as she shows them off, unable to hide her beaming smile as she describes Luke. “He’s a great kid,” she says. “He’s super, super smart. The social aspect is just not there at all, but he’s a happy kid," she says.
Sarah has touched on an important point, and something that is commonly misunderstood about autistic people. It is often assumed that they are unintelligent, simply because they cannot express themselves the way others can. But, they very often are actually highly intelligent, able to see problems in ways that other people cannot. They are not disabled, but differently abled. Sarah puts it like this: “They just learn a little bit differently than other kids. It’s just their wiring, their wiring is different.”
In fact, Luke enjoys a unique perspective and outlook on life that Sarah wishes all kids could experience. “He doesn’t pay any attention to what someone’s wearing, or if their hair is different from someone else’s, or what color their skin is,” she explains. “They don’t care about the things that other kids sometimes pay a little too much attention to.”
Luke was diagnosed when he was 18 months old. His parents started early intervention measures until he began preschool at Lincoln elementary, where they have a developmental class for kids like Luke. “There was a lot of help, more structure,” Sarah recalls. “He benefited from that a lot.” Luke is now a member of the life skills class at McKinley Elementary, taught by Ms. Sydney Strobel. There, Luke and eight other kids from 2nd through 5th grade get instruction tailored to their individual needs by Ms. Strobel and two aides. “He fits right in with the group. He really loves it there,” Sarah says. Once the teachers find an approach that works for a child, great gains can be made in a relatively short span of time. For example, Luke recently began reading, and it is now one of his favorite things to do. “They’re sponges like that,” his mom marvels. “He gets really excited when he knows he read something right and he got his point across. Before, he couldn’t do that."
Besides reading, Luke loves the outdoors, especially hiking in Starved Rock State Park. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaur facts, and is passionate about animals of all kinds. “He’s very ‘naturey’,” Sarah laughs. She says that Luke doesn’t think about the future much. But that’s okay, because he’s got a lot going on in the present. “He’s definitely a day-to-day, loving life kind of kid.” she explains. In short, the kind of kid that most kids would probably want to be. In fact, the students at McKinley are especially open and accepting of Luke and his classmates. Sarah believes that this is due to the fact that they are allowed to interact with each other much more now than in the past. There are more opportunities for others to learn about, (and from) autistic children, and this promotes a greater understanding of their unique personalities, talents, and abilities. And when that happens, everyone benefits. All it takes is an open mind and a desire to see someone for who they really are. Like Luke does.