Understanding social differences

Hayes Freedom student shares her experiences with autism

One of the first things one notices when speaking to Lindy Treece is her goal-oriented nature.

The 17-year-old Hayes Freedom High School senior will graduate with an associate’s degree and then begin Portland State University as a junior, where she will major in speech and hearing services.

So, to learn that Treece is autistic may come as a surprise. It is something she keeps private. Opening up about it has been a process.

Treece was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.

“I didn’t speak or interact with anyone. It was like they were not there,” she said.

Since autism is a subject close to her heart, Treece chose to focus on it for her senior project. She volunteered to assist in social thinking groups through the Camas School District. These groups help kids with autism or other communication disorders learn socially acceptable behaviors that do not come naturally to them.

Treece got involved with the groups after researching her college major.

“I was able to work alongside speech-language pathologists who led the groups,” she said. “Not all of the kids had autism, which is something I had to remember.”

She is hosting an event called, “Social Differences: Solving the Puzzle,” which will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, at Hayes Freedom. Treece will share knowledge she learned during her senior project and how to help and better understand the autistic community. During the event, Treece will accept donations for sensory items, including stress balls and weighted pillows, which help kids cope with sensory overload and assist with developing fine motor skills.

“Autistic people try so hard to be accepted in society and I see it so much that it hurts,” Treece said. “There are so many misconceptions out there that people forget they are real human beings with feelings, too. I want to show that to the community.”

Treece knows from personal experience how hurtful people can be. She faced painful situations in the social land mines of middle school. Sometimes, people she’s confided in about her autism think she’s faking it. Others think she doesn’t have any feelings.

“I do have feelings,” Treece said. “I just don’t have them the way others do. Stereotypes really get to you sometimes. Autism is a spectrum disorder. No person is going to be the same.”

This is partly what inspired her to volunteer in the social thinking groups.

“I would have loved to have someone like me come in and say it does get better,” she said. “My senior project was about making a difference. I want those kids to have the social group I never did.”

A long road

After Treece was diagnosed with autism, she participated in “Tomatis” therapy sessions for more than two years.

Her therapist, Liliana Sacarin, was the first person to get Treece to smile in more than a year, something which made her mom, Rosemarie, break down in tears.

Even when Sacarin transferred to an office in Seattle, Rosemarie would drive her daughter to sessions until she was in first-grade.

“It really helped me with my problems and helped me to listen to people around me,” Treece said.

However, sensory processing issues do not disappear.

“I feel that compared to other people, I feel things, hear things and see things and they get overwhelming,” she said. “It begins to feel like everything is closing in on me. It’s exhausting, and I have to get away.”

Treece has learned coping mechanisms over the years to help with these feelings.

Rosemarie knows her daughter has come a long way. She recalls when her toddler wouldn’t make eye contact or sit in a circle at preschool. She would back into her mother’s lap when she wanted to sit in it, so she wouldn’t have to look at her.

“By the time she was in kindergarten, she’d gone from saying nothing to speaking in full sentences, which I feel was a direct result of her therapy,” Rosemarie said. “Mostly, at that point, we needed to work on her behavior. She had so many sensory issues, that she would melt down.”

However, that didn’t stop Treece from reaching goals.

“She has an incredible determination,” Rosemarie said. “She will do something until she gets it right, no matter what obstacle she may have to endure.”

The future

In the fall, Treece will leave home in Camas and live on-campus at Portland State. This is a prospect that excites her. Much like any other parent, her mother has mixed feelings.

“She is going off to PSU, and I am going to sit home and worry,” Rosemarie remarked. “But it would be worse if I said no. I have always let her lead. She has managed to navigate her way around Clark College (for Running Start classes) pretty well.”

When Treece first broached the topic of participating in Running Start, it was another parental worry moment. But Rosemarie is proud of how her daughter has handled being on a college campus.

“I understood what she was going through and not feeling challenged at school,” she said. “I was worried she didn’t have the social skills to handle being on campus, but she has really blossomed.”

Treece is excited to begin the next phase of her life.

“Volunteering in the social thinking groups really gave me the confidence that I am going in the right direction,” she said. “I’m coming out of the autism closet.”