Lighting it up blue for autism: Events, light displays to help raise awareness

Lighting it up blue for autism: Events, light displays to help raise awareness

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — His painting depicts a sunset over a house. A storm is looming in the background.

The young artist, 14-year-old Peter Fiore, doesn’t think the piece on display at the La Grua Center in Stonington symbolizes much. Or maybe, he admits, it does.

“It’s nice to draw and paint,” he said. “It’s soothing, actually. Sometimes, I find it’s kind of nice and calming.”

For Peter, art wards off the most serious effects of autism, the developmental disorder that impairs his ability to communicate and interact.

Instead, the freshman at Westerly High School connects with canvas. He could paint or draw from sunup to sundown. Lighthouses are his favorite.

“It’s like a disability with my brain,” Peter said. “My social life is very different than everyone else. It’s hard for me to focus on things. Autism isn’t what most people think it is.”

Peter received the diagnosis about 10 years ago. He relies on the arts — he also plays the piano, even Beethoven sonatas — to center him after a day full of interaction. His other methods of coping are eating a snack or constantly chewing gum, especially if he’s had a particularly anxious day at school.

“The most challenging thing right now for us is watching him feel bad about the social challenges he faces,” said mom Eileen Fiore, a World Language teacher at Stonington High School. Peter’s dad, Henry, is the principal of Saint Pius X School in Westerly.

“We hate to see him feel that he’s not accepted or doesn’t feel normal. It’s so hard because we love him as he is and we just want him to feel comfortable being himself. It’s probably not so different from what any parent feels, but I think with autism he does struggle with it in a different way than your typical teenager would.”

April is dedicated to autism awareness, and World Autism Awareness Day, observed Saturday, kicked off the “Light It Up Blue” international campaign organized by Autism Speaks, the leading autism science and advocacy organization.

Throughout the month, bright blue lights will shine at thousands of landmarks and skyscrapers, schools, businesses and homes across the globe in honor of the millions of individuals and families that autism affects.

In Stonington and Westerly, schools, businesses, fire stations and homes are shining blue. Several Pawcatuck and Westerly pubs and restaurants will offer blue drink specials throughout April, too.

“Peter has progressed in a positive direction and we’re blessed and grateful for that,” Eileen said. “There are a lot of interventions out there. Fourteen years ago ... there was nothing because the numbers of people with autism were lower. There were no campaigns.

“People didn’t really understand what it was. Everyone thought of ‘Rain Man.’”

‘What is normal?’

The Fiores, who have two younger children, were aware, when Peter was 3, nearly 4 years old, that something was “going on.”

While he had strong memory skills — he knew the alphabet before he turned 2 — he wouldn’t engage with his parents or try showing them anything, like most toddlers do.

“What is normal anymore?” Eileen said, reflecting. “But he wasn’t connecting with us. We had some early intervention people over for our younger son because he wasn’t talking, and while they were there, Peter was walking around in circles reciting this commercial for women’s vitamins. They asked us if we had considered having him checked out.”

Eileen said Peter’s diagnosis left her overwhelmingly sad for him.

“At first I couldn’t talk about it, I would start crying,” she said. “Then we started going to classes and conferences and we threw ourselves into the world of it. Now Henry goes around and talks to schools about strategies for autism in the classroom. He teaches how to implement those strategies for those kids.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a 2014 estimate, said that 1 in 68 children had been identified with autism spectrum disorder (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls). It’s one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the U.S., and it costs a family $60,000 a year on average.

There is no cure for autism.

“You have to ask why they’re doing the behaviors, like sometimes he chews gum nonstop,” Eileen, who is the adviser for Stonington High’s Unified Talents club, said. “We are always making kids stop without asking why. Why does he need to have gum? It makes him feel better. You really have to be flexible.”

She continued: “Behaviors aren’t necessarily bad. Maybe it’s not socially what we’re used to, but if it’s serving a purpose for that kid .... that’s what people should consider.”

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, the fourth annual “Light It Up Blue” will take place Tuesday at The Twisted Vine.

Also, the La Grua Center is presenting its third annual Celebrating Art in Autism exhibit. Artists of all ages who are affected by autism will have their work on display through the end of the month.

Late last week, Peter attended the exhibit’s opening.

“I try to act normal. I even joined the Students for Life club at school,” Peter said. “I think there are good parts of autism, like you notice more in the world.”

Eileen agreed.

“He’s led us to so many other opportunities,” she said. “He’s opened doors in our lives.”


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