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Published April 17 2012

North Dakota lawmakers open ears for autism

BISMARCK – When Colin Vieweg goes to the mall, he feels like he’s in a jungle surrounded by howler monkeys all screaming at the same time.

“I just need to go away and stay away from the noise,” the Fargo 12-year-old said. “My mom says that’s because my brain processes noises differently than other people.”

Colin was one of several people who told state lawmakers Tuesday about what life is like living with Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum.

The Human Services Committee is studying autism spectrum disorder and learning about the diagnosis, early treatment and care for individuals with the disorder. The committee is seeking recommendations on how to improve services and what changes the 2013 Legislature should consider.

Lawmakers asked to hear from North Dakotans with autism spectrum disorder to get a better idea of the challenges they face.

Colin explained it’s hard for him to focus on one thing, especially if there are other distractions. He said elementary school was terrible because people

didn’t understand him.

“I felt like people were picking on me on purpose,” he said. “Sometimes I got angry and didn’t know how to handle it. I just wanted peace and quiet.”

Colin said he wishes more people understood him and Asperger’s. He said it’s hard to make friends. But he also told legislators he’s glad he has Asperger’s. He talked about his love for science and his good memory.

His grandmother, JoAnne Vieweg, said she loves her grandson as he is, but she told legislators about the emotional and financial toll that Asperger’s has taken on the family.

“It breaks my heart when he isn’t invited to birthday parties or when the kids don’t come to his party,” she said. “It is difficult to explain to him why that might be.”

She talked about the worries the family has about Colin’s future and how he will get a job, work with other people and take direction from his boss. But she also believes he will be a great contributor to society and could invent the next form of robotic machinery or prosthetic limb.

“Investment in these young people will have huge payoffs,” she said. “These are the future scientists, inventors, philosophers and problem solvers, if we can help them reach their true potentials.”

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, asked what she sees as lacking services. Vieweg said it’s been beneficial to have an Asperger’s coach work with Colin and his teachers at his middle school.

She said teacher education is critical, including hands-on experience with these students as teachers learn to work with them.

Isaac Gregoire, 19, of West Fargo, told legislators about the problems he had in school, saying he was harassed and pushed around. He was almost 17 before he was diagnosed with Asperger’s after years of being incorrectly diagnosed and medicated, said his grandmother, Luann Gregoire.

She said one doctor told her to stop looking for excuses for her grandson’s bad behavior.

“It was suggested it was our parenting skills that were the problem,” she said.

With the correct diagnosis and help, Isaac has graduated high school, held part-time jobs and lives on his own, she said. She emphasized the need for education for doctors, educators and businesses.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers heard a report from the state’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force. Lawmakers asked the task force to create a list of policy recommendations for them to consider at future meetings.


Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.


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