Fort Drum teen challenges himself, finds unique place on stage
April 16, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Brian Walsh didn't speak until he was almost 6. Despite an early diagnosis of autism, which affected his ability to communicate, the 17-year-old high school senior has found his niche -- performing in the shoes, face paint and costumes of other people.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Terrence and Kathy Walsh were stationed at Fort Drum when they welcomed their one and only child into the world. Kathy Walsh lives in the North Country with Brian while he finishes his senior year while Terrence Walsh, formerly the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade and deputy garrison chaplain here, serves with the G1 Command Policy and Programs Division in Washington, D.C.
Shortly after a permanent-change-of-station move to Fort Knox, Ky., the Walshes began noticing their 15-month-old was regressing.
"We were (at Fort Drum) until Brian was about a year old, and he hit all of his milestones and started to babble," Kathy Walsh said. "We got to Fort Knox, and all of a sudden we realized that he started losing some of the language he had acquired."
At 18 months, Brian was evaluated by an early intervention specialist. The experts recommended that his parents continue to watch and observe his development, and they suggested some exercises to do at home.
By age 2, Brian had regressed significantly, Kathy Walsh said. After visiting a developmental pediatrician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Brian was diagnosed with pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified, also known as PDD-NOS.
"(Brian) was a happy kid, but (he) had (adverse reactions) to some stimulations -- flapping (hands) and no language," Kathy Walsh said. "He could understand (words) but had no reciprocal expressive language; he would drag you, point to things and would communicate in other ways."
Brian learned sign language and began speech and occupational therapy to help with his fine motor skills.
"By the time he was 4, he had entered the DOD school system, and we thought it would be good to get him reevaluated. That's when they told us he had autism," she said.
The news was bittersweet, but at least there was a name for Brian's diagnosis.
"We thought, 'OK, what do we do now?" she said.
At the time, there wasn't a lot of information available about autism, but that didn't stop Terrence and Kathy Walsh from finding out what was best for their son.
"I had some friends who had children on the (autism) spectrum, but he was completely different from them and they were completely different from others," Kathy Walsh said, adding that the DOD school system helped the Family get all of the information and resources available in the area. "It was probably the best place we could've been, which is why we stayed there until he was in the fourth grade."
The stability that offered Brian was extremely beneficial, Kathy Walsh said. He had the same teachers and became familiar with the Exceptional Family Member Program staff.
"The EFMP office there knew us well," she said. "I have tremendous respect for EFMP, because you get very close to the people."
The Family got involved in different activities to ensure their son received the best care and treatment possible. Terrence and Kathy Walsh also became very involved in Brian's education.
"He had a significant delay, but he had fantastic teachers and got a lot of breaks in the school day," Kathy Walsh said. "It was all put into his (individualized education program). Getting that set and getting that perfect (was a challenge). You learn to fight, and you learn to really be your child's best advocate."
Terrence Walsh took classes with a lawyer specializing in special education law, and the Family was active in the Autism Society in Louisville. The society invited doctors to come to meetings and allowed parents to sit down and talk with them without having to make an appointment.
"The networking and getting (connected) with other families was so significant," Walsh said. "We didn't take on this challenge alone; there were a lot of other Families with (autistic) children on post."
Connecting with other military Families with children on the autism spectrum disorder was "fantastic" for Brian, Walsh said.
"A lot of parents think their child will never make friends or never do 'normal' things," she said. "When they would get together and play, whatever they did was 'normal' for them. Even if they were doing their own thing sitting back to back, they were still interacting in their own way and how they needed to. That was normal.
"I hate the label of 'normal,' but whatever they did was fine for them," Walsh continued.
The Walsh Family continues to help others in the community who are facing a new diagnosis of autism. With 17 years of experience navigating through EFMP services and other community services, the Walshes have a wealth of knowledge to share.
"I know other people who have had a much worse time than we have," Kathy Walsh said. "There have been bumps in the road, but other than having to fight for what he needed or a teacher or classrooms, Brian has been easily adaptable and he goes into things with an open mind."
Finding an outlet
Brian found a love of art, design and writing. When he was 8, one of his friends, who also was diagnosed with autism, was hit by a car. After visiting him in the hospital, Brian decided his friend needed something for comfort. He came up with the idea for SAAM -- "Security Against All Monsters" -- blankets.
Brian learned to sew and began making SAAM blankets for orphanages and hospice centers in Korea, Afghanistan, Poland, Germany, Scotland and all over the United States.
He was recognized for his work in Kentucky and at their next duty station at Fort Sill, Okla., Kathy Walsh said.
After moving back to Fort Drum in 2007, the Walsh Family became involved in Fort Drum's EFMP, as well as other post and community organizations and events. Brian even donned a red hat and fluffy white beard when he played Santa Claus at a sensory-friendly holiday party in Watertown.
Brian found his love of theater and drama when he got involved with Child, Youth and School Services' SKIES Unlimited theater program and began singing in the choir.
"I've always been a big fan of the arts and just seeing people use their skills to their advantage," Brian said. "I thought that maybe my autism could really get me to be over the top or (act like someone else), and it really helps."
Last month, Brian starred as the Grinch in Indian River Central High School's theatrical production of "Seussical." Since stepping on stage for the first time, he has been involved in six theater productions, including "Annie," "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "12 Angry Jurors."
"When the high school did 'Annie' (last year), which is one of my favorite shows, I really wanted to be involved," he added.
Indian River High School has a great theater program, according to Kathy Walsh. In addition to theater, Brian also is taking public speaking this year.
"He's not afraid to push himself," she said.
Brian also had an opportunity to audition for a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City on March 28. The 128-year-old school offers a two-year degree that will transfer to other four-year colleges.
"They have an extraordinary alumnus -- Florence Henderson, Denzel Washington, Hank Azaria and Robert Redford," Brian said. "Maybe I'll make it to the big time."
To prepare for the audition, Brian had to memorize monologues, which he admits is an easy task for him.
"Memorizing monologues? That's easy," he said, laughing.
For a young man who started his life lacking the ability to fully communicate, Brian continues to push himself and encourage others through finding ways to speak his mind, whether it's on stage, through art, writing for his school newspaper or singing to an audience.
"You've got to just believe in yourself sometimes and find the best way to get through the obstacles, even if it means taking a short cut," Brian said. "For anyone who's diagnosed with (an autism spectrum disorder), it's not the end of the world. There's a lot you have to learn, but (the Family) learns together. It's a matter of cooperation that counts, and you aren't alone."