Sam Trapnell shakes his head and covers his ears as he reads the “noise, noise, noise!” part of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to kids gathered at the Hamilton Place Barnes & Noble. Trapnell, 21, who is autistic, has been reading to children there since September.
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Advice on autistic children
Jayne Trapnell, a nurse, offers advice to parents who are just learning that their child is autistic.
“Take the time to grieve what you thought might be,” she says. “Then, roll up your sleeves and go about living your life and helping your child to be the best they can be.
“Early intervention is crucial. You are not going to cure your child or make this go away. Don’t listen to people telling you that you can ‘recover’ your child and make the autism go away. You can’t. What you can do is focus on getting them the best early intervention you can get, and learning to accept that they are who they are.”
Trapnell says she is encouraged by research.
“There is so much more out there in terms of awareness and options for treatment that are mainstream,” she says. “When Sam was diagnosed, I knew no one who had a child or even knew someone with a child who had autism. The incidence then was about 1 in every 1,250 kids. Now it’s like 1 in every 50 kids. It’s crazy. Autism is in the news all the time now.”
Trapnell says her son has changed her life for the better.
“The journey with Sam has given me a positive attitude, even when I’m feeling discouraged,” she says. “You just learn to deal with whatever comes your way. Having him has made me an infinitely better person. Having him has made me understand that I can’t control what life will throw at me. All I can control is how I respond. I use that in every aspect of my life now because nothing is going to knock me down.”
Sam Trapnell hopes to be gainfully employed one day but, as of now, there are no offers.
At 21, Sam is autistic and, while there are things he will likely never be able to accomplish, such as drive a car, earn a college degree or live independently, there are many things he can do.
One is reading. Sam’s love of reading and his skills at reading to others have landed him in volunteer “reading” positions at Catoosa County Library in Ringgold, Ga., and Barnes & Noble at Hamilton Place. At both places, Sam reads to children.
He has a keen interest in children’s books, says his mom, Jayne Trapnell. And when Sam reads, everyone listens — not just the kids, but their parents as well.
Though he can be very shy when meeting someone for the first time, Sam is anything but when he starts reading aloud to a live audience. His typical inhibitions and discomforts of being in a social situation immediately disappear. Sam is in his element.
He springs into action as soon as he reads the name of the book and its author. As he reads “Miss Nelson is Missing” by James Marshall, Sam’s quiet personality quickly morphs into one that emulates each character’s emotions in the book, whether it’s excitement, anger, fear or happiness. Sam masters each one.
He also throws in unexpected sound effects — tapping his knuckles on a table to emulate knocking on a door, raising his voice to imitate rowdy children, adding a touch of femininity when reading the lines of a female teacher. His audience is hooked, closely following every word.
Mary Anne Hendricks, Catoosa County Library System youth services coordinator, says Sam’s involvement at the library began last spring as a volunteer, and he moved into the children’s area over the summer. Since he spent a lot of time reading children’s books, “his mother asked if Sam might read a story at our regular storytime hour,” Hendricks says.
At first, Sam was uncomfortable connecting with the “listeners,” she says, “but with practice each week, he started to develop his own dynamic way of making the stories come alive. He was great at changing his voice and making animal sounds.”
And, if he’s familiar with the book, he can recite it completely without looking at the pages, she says.
“He began to try to interact with the young children, often asking their names and sharing his craft-making time with them,” Hendricks says. “I believe working with this age group has opened up Sam to new ways to express himself. And the children love it. It has been a great experience for me, as a children’s librarian, to see his enthusiasm and motivation grow each week.”
While working with Sam has, at times, been a little challenging, Hendricks says it also has been rewarding. “We all look forward to Sam’s visit with us each week.”
Though Sam, an only child, is articulate and can carry on a conversation, like many people with autism, he’s uncomfortable talking to people he doesn’t know well. Nor does he like changes to his daily routine, another common trait of those with autism.
When asked a question, he relies on his mom to help him respond, even though he may know the answer. He does, though, like to talk about his favorite TV show, “Sesame Street.”
“I love Sesame Street,” he says. “I’ve watched every episode.”
Trapnell, who is accustomed to speaking in behalf of her son, says he is more comfortable with children than adults.
Kelly Flemings, community relations manager at Barnes & Noble Hamilton Place, where Sam read at least once a month, says he has set up special reading opportunities to showcase Sam’s talent for reading children’s books.
“Sam is one of the best storytellers I have ever been fortunate to hear read,” Flemings says. “When we invited him to read ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas,’ it was extraordinary. He had a special Grinch voice as well as Cindy Lou Who. He impresses me even more every time I hear him read. He’s phenomenal.”
The children think so, too, Flemings says.
“[They’re] absolutely mesmerized” — and so are the parents, he adds.
Trapnell, while crediting much of her son’s accomplishments to the opportunities made possible by Hendricks and Flemings, says Bill Byron, Sam’s special education teacher at Heritage High School in Ringgold, Ga., has made a significant contribution to Sam’s intellectual and social maturity.
“My job is working with special needs students who are age 18 to 22,” says Byron. Sam, even though he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School in 2011, by law he qualifies to participate in the program at Heritage until he turns 22.
“The training I provide is in the area of job training, independent living skills, social skills, communication skills and functional academics,” Byron says.
For Sam, “the most noticeable improvement is in his social skills. Sam has become able to interact with people so much easier than he used to. He is appropriate with his interactions with everyone, including strangers. His maturation is obvious to those who know him.
“He has a wonderful talent that kids love,” Byron says. “He loves doing it, and his mother is a great advocate. He will be successful.”
Still, Trapnell is concerned that her son won’t find employment, which is one of her goals for Sam. It’s something she has worked toward since a doctor told her that Sam, 2, was likely autistic.
Bryon says employers are starting to “get it” about young autistic adults being employable.
“Ingles Grocery in Ringgold has several of my students employed,” Byron says. “Bi-Lo, Pizza Hut and Catoosa County Schools currently employ former students. … I am more encouraged than frustrated because I believe in the product. It is my passion to make sure others ‘get it.’ Employers have to know the value of hiring people with autism. Unique personalities, loyal workers, and very capable.”
And those who have worked with Sam say employers shouldn’t turn away just because he’s autistic.
“I don’t look at Sam as having a disability,” Flemings says. “He’s an incredibly talented young man and any business who doesn’t explore people with varying talents definitely should. We all have things to offer the world and I would love to see other businesses open their minds to anyone willing to share their talents.”
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at email@example.com or 423-757-6396.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...