Friday, April 10, 2020

Freeform Friday: Two Authors' Perspectives on Autism and Increasing Awareness Through Literature

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I want to introduce you to two amazing authors; Austin and Aaron Jepson are a set of youthful, intelligent, and resilient brothers who also happen have autism.  In this spotlight, I hope to show others that although people with autism may struggle with certain limitations, they have so much to offer the global community.

Austin Jepson was removed from a dysfunctional home at the age of five, and placed into the foster care system for two years before being adopted at age seven.  Although Austin found his forever family, he had no effective way to express himself and struggled with anger and anxiety.  His parents tried countless therapies to help their son find his voice, but it wasn't until the age of eleven, when Austin entered a special program, that he learned to communicate his thoughts with the use of a stencil board and, eventually, a computer or tablet.  As Austin began to converse with his family, it became clear that he was intelligent, creative, and most definitely had something contribute.  Now, when Austin gets an idea for a poem or story, his Dad helps him get a draft down on the iPad and assists with editing. At the age of sixteen, Austin's first book, Passing by the Moon, was born.

Passing by the Moon is a collection of poems and short stories that offer insight into the life and mind of a young man living with non-verbal autism.  One of the poems (Silence is Silenced) was even published in a national literary magazine, the Louisville Review.

I tend to judge poems by how they make me feel rather than such notions as rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter.  If a poem can make me laugh, cry, wax nostalgic, or contemplate the universe, then in my mind it is a good poem.  I was thoroughly impressed by Austin's creative and thoughtful poems. I can tell that a lot of time and effort went into them.  I loved how each poem was accompanied by an author's note that lent perspective and explained his thought process or what inspired that particular piece.

It was too hard for me to pick a favorite instead I picked five. 

Because I make my own rules, gosh!

  • The Mask, Austin's first poem, conveys how he sometimes felt trapped by his disorder, and talks about the various ways autism presents, but ends with the determined phrase "Autism won't define me."  Austin's conviction to be more than his diagnosis, is quite apparent in many of his poems.
  •  The poem Waves of Change offered sage wisdom that stuck with me:
Be wary of the crashing waves
That erode beaches,
Not the gentle ones
That inspire change. 
  • Silence is Silenced is Austin's first published work, and rightfully so, as it tells his own story.  One section asks the question, what is the worth of a word?  That question gave me pause and helped me be more grateful for the ability to communicate.
  • Walk With Me is a comforting, poignant, and faith-filled poem about a conversation between a struggling soul and the Savior.  In this poem and others, Austin let's his hard-earned faith show and I just love it.
  • Finally, the poem, Mothers, is an exquisitely heartfelt tribute to mothers everywhere, but especially to his own.  It was so touching (and spot-on) I can imagine that it is one of his mother's most prized possessions.  If I had to pick a favorite, Mothers would be it.
I could see Austin's heart all over this book.  I gravitated mostly toward the poems, but the book does have some short stories as well and they each taught an important lesson.  Overall, I enjoyed my time with this book and I am excited to see what Austin does next. 

If interested, you can purchase Austin's book of poems, Passing by the Moon, here.

At the age of three, Aaron Jepson was diagnosed with autism.  Although he possessed normal intelligence, understood everything going on around him, he was unable to communicate with others and struggled with crippling anxiety.  He felt trapped and fought to maintain his faith in the face of overwhelming despair.  Aaron is now in his 20s and, with the love and support of his amazing parents, is able to communicate with others and has become a gifted writer.  He loves being outdoors, has run several marathons, maintains a YouTube channel called Inside Autism with Aaron Jepson (where he posts short videos that give personal insight into the effects of autism), and has written Running with Faith: The Inspiring Journey of Faith of a Young Man with Autism.  

Running with Faith is truly remarkable. It is Aaron's own account of his struggles with autism, of overcoming challenges, and of a faith lost and found.  It offers inspiration and encouragement to those who face their own challenges and helped me realize the ways I can be more compassionate, understanding, and patient with, well, everyone, but especially those who are on the autism spectrum.  I appreciated Aaron's openness about those times when he felt alone, despairing, and without faith, and I think his journey into and out of the darkness will resonate with many, regardless of their individual beliefs.  I especially loved the parallels that Aaron drew between his own physical trials and the guidance he receives from his parents compared to the spiritual trials we face and the guidance of a loving God.

Aaron's story is extremely motivational and although I could feel his frustration as he strained against his limitations, I also teared up (read: bawled my eyes out) at his many successes, like when he ran and won his first marathon and when he spoke in church for the first time.  Overall, Running with Faith stands a poignant testimony of God's love and the power of perseverance.  I look forward to watching Aaron's progress and am excited to see what his bright future holds.

If interested, you can purchasing Aaron's book, Running with Faithhere.

After I finished reading, I had the opportunity to interview Aaron Jepson, author of Running with Faith, via email.  Here's our Q&A:

First off, I am super impressed with your running abilities.  I stink at it and am constantly listening to the negative voices in my head that tell me to quit.  Any tips?

I still have those thoughts almost every time I run.  I am lucky because I have a running partner (my dad) who won't let me quit.  So that's my advice.  Find someone to run with that will motivate you.  Signing up for a race helps too.  It gives you a goal

If you could give one piece of advice to someone whose loved one has been diagnosed with autism, what would it be?

Don't think that your life is going to be terrible now.  It's just going to be different.  Your kids can feel your negative energy.  Realize that this will bring out hidden talents and you will find out that you have strength that you didn't think you had.

I have seen your YouTube channel video where you talk about your experiences with autism, and specifically the video that talks about how looking for positives in the pandemic can help anxiety. In these crazy times, what other strategies have you learned to help combat anxiety?

I spend time outside.  Sunlight and fresh air really help me.  I am also writing every day.  I'm working on a novel and having that to think about helps distract me from scarier things  

I really appreciated with your honesty about your struggles with faith and feeling God's love.  Do you have a favorite quote or scripture that has helped you make it through?

My favorite scripture is in Ether 12:27:

"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.  I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith inme, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

I love that scripture because I have seen it come true in my own life.  I hate having autism.  It holds me back from things I want to do.  But, at the same  time, it has given me opportunities to share my testimony that I would not have had otherwise.  Because it is hard for me to speak, people want to listen more to my thoughts when I can express them. 

Here at Reading for Sanity, we love books.  Outside of the scriptures, do you have any book recommendations for me?

My parents read books to me every night.  That is how I have learned to write and it has expanded my vocabulary well beyond what I ever learned in school.  I love listening to stories.  I have some favorites.  One is called Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.  It's about a strange kid (actually he was autistic before they were diagnosing it as much) who takes his friend on an amazing adventure.  He shows how real life and fantasy often mirror each other.  Anyway, it's a good one.  I also like classics like Oliver Twist, Of Mice and Men, and Huckleberry Finn.  I'll think of others and send you a list.

I want to thank Aaron for his willingness to answer my questions and 
I look forward to receiving more of his book recommendations.  
On that same vein, I thought I'd throw in a few books of my own.  

Although everyone experiences autism differently, I've found that through the main characters these books helped me understand at least some of the difficulties people on the autism spectrum may face on a daily basis.  I've linked our reviews below:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Haddon, Mark ...

Counting by 7s - Holly Goldberg Sloan

Mockingbird  - Katherine Erskine

Chester & Gus - Cammie McGovern

Out of My Mind - Sharon Draper

To read more about the Austin & Aaron Jepson and their family, you can visit their family blog -- The Jepson Files.

Pssssstttt...... It's also come to my attention since writing this review that Austin and Aaron's father, Bryan Jepson, who is a board certified emergency medicine physician, is also the published author of a particularly relevant title: Changing the Course of Autism: A Scientific Approach for Parents and Physicians. I haven't read it yet, so take a look.  Let me know what you think!


Cim* said...

Theses books sound great! These boys’ stories are inspiring and they should be very proud of their accomplishments!

TaraBake said...

These books sound so amazing! Thank you for sharing.


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