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Final installment of special series: Mother hopes autistic son can live independently

By JR Ortega
Dec. 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.

Monica Davis, her granddaughter, Kailyn Hinojosa, 7, and son, Arnold Davis Jr., 24, rest on a bench at the mall after a shopping trip. Her son has mid-level autism, meaning he can go out in public and enjoy activities that are familiar and regular with his family. "We like to come look around at the mall together," his mother said. "It's something we do as a family that Arnold really likes."

Monica Davis, her granddaughter, Kailyn Hinojosa, 7, and son, Arnold Davis Jr., 24, rest on a bench at the mall after a shopping trip. Her son has mid-level autism, meaning he can go out in public and enjoy activities that are familiar and regular with his family. "We like to come look around at the mall together," his mother said. "It's something we do as a family that Arnold really likes."

Arnold Davis Jr. opens the door to his bedroom and ever-so-slightly nods his head toward a large shelf lined with DVD movies and series box sets.

Scanning the 24-year-old's collection of easily more than 200 movies and television show series can leave you a bit confused about its order.

"He's real particular about that," his younger sister, Jennifer Davis, said, standing in the doorway.

Davis, a mid-level functioning autistic, stands silently by her, not so much mute as he is shy.

The order of his collection is like a cryptic code waiting to be cracked; the arrangement manages to walk the fine line of random, yet somewhat orderly.

But another fine line is being walked - can Davis function independently in society, or will he just spend the rest of his days in the care of others?

Order of life

As it turns out, there is order to Davis' collection, after all.

While most people might organize alphabetically or by genre, Davis has arranged his hard-earned collection by date of purchase - an amazing feat made possible because of his autism.

"If you borrow a DVD, you better put it right back where it was," his sister said, laughing in an omniscient tone. "He'll know."

Davis spends hours perusing the electronics aisle at his favorite retailer, Target.

His hands dive through the clearance bin looking for movies - any movies, really - that are not in his collection.

He's usually with his mother, Monica Davis, a 50-year-old woman sporting a stay-at-home mom look.

Though Davis does not require her full attention, she spends the day with him, or rather, he spends the day with her.

"I thank God every day. My son could be way worse," his mother said.

The two spend the day watching television, going to the mall and cleaning the house.

But life was not always this way.

Finding a niche

Davis' autism diagnosis came late. He was about 13 at the time he received a formal diagnosis.

His family thought he was just slow to develop and doctors could not find anything wrong. It was not until the late '90s that the word autism became used more widely .

That was when his family decided to have him tested.

"I've tried to get him local jobs," Davis' mother said, wringing her hands a bit. "I'm not having any luck whatsoever."

Davis used to work at Target and Big Lots behind the scenes when the family lived in Laredo.

Then his family moved to Victoria three years ago when Davis' father was relocated for his job at Save-A-Lot.

Davis was 21 when his family moved to Victoria. In Laredo, he was in a high school transition program that put mid- to high-functioning special needs people into the workplace.

Jobs are available for those with special needs, even those like Davis, who rarely talk, said Billy Blanchard, with the Workforce Solutions of the Golden Crescent and Victoria Disability Coalition.

But with the down economy, everyone is having trouble finding employment, even more so, those with special needs.

Because of Davis' high school program, he has continued to develop a strong set of life skills, his family said.

Davis can wash, dry and fold clothes and he pretty much takes care of himself - all skills he learned in high school through a life skills course.

He knows when to take his medication. He can be left alone. He can cook.

But talking, writing and reading is different. That's when his autism becomes noticeable.

"It's really not hard at all," Davis' mother said about dealing with an autistic son. "He's so dependable."

Davis' eyes dart at each of his family members as they talk, back and forth like a heated tennis match.

He's still very quiet.

"He is standoffish," his older sister, Caroline Davis, said.

Davis leans back on his bed, fast-forwarding to his favorite scenes of his favorite television series, "Charmed," about three attractive sisters who are witches.

His younger sister and older sister sit in the kitchen, talking.

"He likes the girls," one of the sisters says, laughing.

He smiles gently, looking down at the table, still quiet.

Working with autism

Already, Region III Education Service Center is working on bringing into Victoria a program much like what Davis had in Laredo, said Lottie Tomko, an education consultant with Region III.

Tomko is looking into post-school options to help transition special needs children, like some mid- to high-level functioning autistics one step farther into the real world.

A program like VAST, or Vocational Advancement and Social Skill Training, is being considered. The program is through Houston Community Colleges.

The program gives students a chance to enhance their skills in living independently, being more academic. It also promotes job readiness, Tomko said.

Though VAST, or a program like it, is not in the Crossroads yet, that possibility could soon be a reality.

Davis' mother hopes for the sake of others about to graduate that a program like this would exist.

One of her bigger fears is having her son not be as independent as he possibly can be.

Programs like the Vocational Rehabilitation program through Disability and Rehabilitative Services helps people with disabilities, like adult autism.

The program pre-screens its consumers and prepares them to find jobs based on their individual skills and interests, said Paul Nixon, a communications specials with DARS.

"A high-functioning person with autism in the DARS Vocational Rehabilitation program has just as much of an opportunity and can even be better prepared to succeed in finding employment as a non-disabled person," Nixon said.

High unemployment rate and other influences are not factors DARS can control, but preparing each person in the program puts them ahead of the game, he said.

Hoping for independence

Social skills aside, Davis is independent.

"My whole family loves him to death," his older sister said.

Davis' mother has chosen to not view him any differently.

Behind closed doors, he talks. Even then, he's at a third-grade level.

"He's at my daughter's level," his older sister said.

Davis often takes care of his sister's 7-year-old, Kailyn, and the two get along well.

"He's so dependable," Davis' mother said, smiling.

Davis' eyes frequently meet the eyes of his family as they talk about him.

If he isn't giving one-word answers to questions he's being asked directly, he'll look at his mother or sisters to answer for him.

"He's not like all the other autistic kids," his mother said.

Uncertain future

The Davises try to give back. They started an autism awareness walk last year and plan for the 2nd annual event in late March at Riverside Park.

The family plans to donate to Autism Network Connection, a Victoria autism awareness group headed by Rosemary Pena Watts, whose 6-year-old son also has autism.

So what does the future hold?

The family really has no idea, they say.

Davis' father has been working on landscaping as a side job, where Davis has been helping out some, but it's still not a steady source of income.

Already, Davis' sisters have said should something happen to their parents, their brother would be well taken care of.

Not a day goes by where his mother does not hope for the best for her son.

Marriage, kids, maybe a place of his own.

But could it happen?

"I say, maybe yes," his mother said, a smile breaking across her face. "Maybe yes."



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