Video by Kaard Bombe | Multimedia Reporter
Film and media studies junior Trevor Pacelli doesn’t make much eye contact.
When he talks, sometimes he looks off to the side instead of directly at the person in front of him, and he takes time to let himself think of what to say.
Despite his pauses, Pacelli has taught himself to converse and interact with others just as fluidly and easily as any college student, even though his autism makes him struggle with talking to people.
Pacelli said when he was growing up, he didn’t understand autism and why he was different from other people, which is what prompted him to write his book.
“I didn’t really know why I was the way I was (and) why it was so much harder for me to make friends than other people or why people didn’t always invite me to go do stuff with them,” he said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is a developmental disability in a person that can affect the way they interact and relate to people.
“Usually a person is born with that instinct on how to handle social situations, conversations and relationships,” Pacelli said, “But when you have autism, you aren’t born with that instinct. You have to learn it with age.”
Approximately one in 88 babies born are on the autistic spectrum, and it affects more boys than girls, with one in 54 boys and one in 252 girls being autistic, according to the CDC.
Pacelli said autism affects everyone differently. For example, he said it makes him introverted, but for others, it might make them more outgoing.
“Every single case of autism is different,” Pacelli said. “I have an issue making friends. … Someone else on the spectrum might be an extrovert.”
About a year and a half ago, Pacelli wrote a book titled “Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic.”
Pacelli said his book was intended to help parents, family and friends of people with autism understand what it is like to be autistic and how to help them.
“I wrote this book for parents who have autistic children,” he said. “I want parents to have a better idea of what their child with autism is like.”
Pacelli said he was the first in his family to be diagnosed with autism and sometimes his parents didn’t know what to do, which is what caused him to start writing.
“When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have that great of an idea about what my needs were exactly,” he said. “I feel like coming from the perspective of another person with autism they can learn more about their kid and what their needs are.”
The book, which took about a month to write, was published by his parents’ publishing company, Pacelli Publishing, and is available in both print and digital formats from his website, Amazon, Kindle and iTunes.
It is one of a series about autism that presents “lessons” in brief paragraphs that draw largely on experience.
Pacelli’s mother and father are working on two new books for the series on creating autistic-friendly workplaces and advice for dads with autistic children.
Patty, Pacelli’s mother, said readers of the book have said the book helped them better understand their family members because of the personal experiences Pacelli shares.
“We went to an autism fair when (the book first came out,)” she said. “So many parents said to (Pacelli), ‘Oh, you’ve given us hope,’ because they see him as a 19-year-old, at the time, and are able to read his experiences growing up.”
Lonnie, Pacelli’s father, said often when a young child is diagnosed it is difficult for parents to understand and see what their child can still be capable of doing.
By seeing Pacelli as a successful student and person, others are able to have hope for their children’s future, Lonnie said.
“(Pacelli) is a junior at Arizona State,” he said. “He’s going to graduate college. He’s going to be a screenwriter. Those are things a lot of people with autism can’t envision for their child.”
Lonnie and Patty said they both felt concerned for their son’s options and future when he was first diagnosed 15 years ago.
Growing Up Autistic
Pacelli was diagnosed with autism when he was 5 years old by doctors at the University of Washington near his home in Sammamish, Wash.
Patty said she and her husband first became concerned about Pacelli when he didn’t talk and didn’t understand what they were saying at 2, because their older daughter, Briana, had been speaking in full sentences at that age.
“We had something to judge his milestones, kind of comparing him to her,” Patty said.
They started taking Pacelli to speech therapy and sent him to a special preschool, but when he started kindergarten, Pacelli still wasn’t speaking.
At that point, Pacelli was diagnosed with autism, something Patty said she and her husband “suspected kind of before that.”
When Pacelli was diagnosed, Patty said she felt concerned about her son’s future.
“Autism wasn’t as familiar back then,” Patty said. “We didn’t know, although the doctor … had a pretty good prognosis, we were extremely concerned. We didn’t know if he would be able to drive a car or what kind of job he would be able to get.”
Lonnie said the diagnosis was hard to understand at first, but the concerns he had for his son have been resolved over the years.
“Trevor was diagnosed at age 5, and now diagnoses happen at age 2,” he said. “You don’t know anything about your child at 2, and it’s very difficult to tell how they are going to be when they are 18 years old.”
After he graduated from East Lake High School, Pacelli and his family moved to Bellevue, Wash., where he attended Bellevue College.
Pacelli was home schooled in junior high.
“Grades were a higher priority (in junior high),” he said. “When I got into high school, grades weren’t as important to me as making friends and being social.”
While Pacelli was in high school, he said he made friends and learned to be more social, but sometimes people would even exploit him because he was autistic.
“There were a few people who accepted me,” he said. “There were some people who pretended to accept me … but they really used my autism to entertain others.”
Evening the Score
While Pacelli has had mostly good experiences at ASU, he said he has had to work harder to make friends.
“It’s been really hard for me to reach out and talk to people. I actually live in a single dorm. … I actually have to work more at reaching out to others.”
He has registered with the ASU Disability Resource Center to ensure that he can take tests outside of the classroom, which eliminates the pressure he feels to rush, and came to campus earlier in the summer to acclimate to the campus before classes started.
The University and the DRC provide services and accommodations for students on the autism spectrum, including alternate testing sites, in-class note takers and special classes on how to do things such as laundry and speak in public, according to the DRC’s website.
Pacelli, a movie-lover whose favorite film is “American Beauty,” said the film program was one reason he came to ASU.
“I’m very interested in being a screenwriter,” Pacelli said. “I’ve always had that interest in storytelling and taking my own spin on movies.”
Lonnie said his son decided to attend ASU in the fall because he has a lot of family in Arizona, and his father graduated from ASU while both his mother and sister attended UA.
“(Pacelli) is proud to even the score, to have two Sun Devils and two Wildcats,” Lonnie said. “He is proud to say the girls are Wildcats and the boys are Sun Devils.”
Pacelli is also a talented photographer, writer and artist, his family said. He even illustrated a children’s book on autism that his sister wrote.
Lonnie said even though his son is autistic, it does not define him.
“Trevor may have autism, but you may have preconceived notions of what an autistic child is,” he said. “You need to look at Trevor as a person first and foremost and not qualify how you look at him as an autistic person.”
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