Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Owen. I am 19 years old, and a sophomore here at UC San Diego double majoring in Environmental Systems and Urban Planning. I was born and raised in New York City, went to high school in New Jersey, and then came to San Diego for school. Needless to say, I’m not a Cali girl by blood, but I love living on the west coast! I come from a pretty small family, and have one older brother named Matthew.
Matthew is 21 years old. Even though we’re almost 2 years apart, people always mistook us as twins growing up. We were always the same height, had the same hair color, and so closely resembled twins, so one could see why they would assume that. About 2 months before I was born, Matthew was diagnosed with autism. He was almost 2 years old at the time, and had not begun to talk. Matthew has been non-verbal his whole life, and to this day he has never spoken a single word. He can make sounds, but he has not ever spoken a true “word”. That moment is always something I dream of, yet his lack of speech has made me question what “speech” truly is. Perhaps our emotions, actions, and attitudes are a language itself. Besides his lack of speech, Matthew was relatively healthy as a child. He hardly ever got sick, and always enjoyed a good meal. Until the age of thirteen, Matthew was on a gluten-casein free diet. After awhile, he gradually began to eat regular foods (and who can blame him! He always cheated and would eat regular ice cream instead of Tapioca ice cream and potato milk). Recently, Matthew has begun having minor seizures, but he usually can sense when they are coming and warn us.
Many members of the non-verbal community use assistive devices to communicate. When he was little, Matthew used a picture wallet to gesture towards common phrases. As he grew older, he used a giant box-like device called a Springboard that had a touch screen on it to press words. Sound familiar? Well it should, because several years later Matthew advanced to using an iPad! To this day, Matthew carries around an iPad that contains a communication app called Proloquo 2 Go, as well as many of his favorite games. The app features programmable buttons and menus that can feature an infinite amount of words and phrases, as well as giving Matthew the option to take a photo of something to associate with the word/phrase. It’s a big moment for Matt to ask if he may take your photo to put in the iPad, because it means you have officially been added to his list of words. Besides his devices, we would all use sign language to communicate with Matthew. He doesn’t use it too much now, but will occasionally when his iPad isn’t handy.
While Matthew may not speak aloud, his personality speaks for itself. He is one of the most sociable people I have ever met! Growing up, everyone always adored Matt. Out of the two of us, he is the more sociable one. He always has had a huge sense of humor and loves to make people laugh and feel loved. A common practice of his was to take his dirty socks and hide them in my pillow growing up, and upon my finding them he’d fall over laughing. He also is a huge flirt, and everyone loves him! With his handsome looks, his sense of humor, and his desire to be around people, he always is the center of attention around my friends. He’s extremely active in the local community, and is the first to remember your name and give you a giant hug. Everyone from the cashier at the grocery store to the hairdresser to the bank teller knows Matthew and always loves seeing him.
One question a lot of people usually ask me is about Matthew’s education. Matthew went to public school his whole life, from kindergarten to the age of 21. From kindergarten to 5th grade, he attended a special education public school. While not all individuals with special needs attend a different school from their peers, Matthew did so that he could get more 1:1 attention from speech and occupational therapists. For middle and high school, he attended an integrated special education program where him and his classmates spent half of the day with their teachers, and the other half with non special education teachers and the entire student body. He stayed in high school until the age of 21, where upon graduation he moved onto an adult day program. Him and his peers come together about 30 minutes away from 9 AM to 3,and they do a variety of activities and excursions into the community. They cook together, do swim lessons, shop, go to the library, or the movies, as well as take lessons on computer skills and social etiquette. Matthew leaves early several days a week to go to his jobs at the Veterans Hospital and our local nursing home. He works in the offices of both places sorting mail. When our grandma was alive, she lived in the nursing home he works at and they got to see each other daily.
When he isn’t at work or at his day program, Matthew can be found just about anywhere! Every Thursday he goes to yoga, and when I am home from college I’ll join him. During the spring-fall, him and I would do horseback riding together. I worked as an instructor, and Matt was a student at the therapeutic riding center a few miles from us. I don’t teach anymore, but Matt still goes when there isn’t snow. On Saturdays during the fall and spring he plays on our local Special Olympics soccer league, and in the winters he does basketball and bowling with the local Challenger League. During the summers, we would attend camp together, but for the past 5 years he went to sleepaway camp by himself! I was so anxious to see him go, but thrilled that he had a great time. When at home, Matthew enjoys spending time around animals-anything from horses to cats to dogs- and adores music. He always makes us go to the high school football games and concerts to see the marching band. Another fun fact: Matt is a genius when it comes to trains and bridges. He used to have all of the NY bridges memorized, and we always loved taking the train to visit people. He’s also the reason why I am a huge puzzle addict. When we’re together, our typical routine consists of working out together, cooking (and him eating!), and then going out together. He’s also extremely photogenic-I always have so much fun taking photos of him, especially at his high school graduation.
To this day, Matthew will always be my other half. When I was younger, I always felt the need to protect him. Now that I am older, I have realized how strong Matthew truly is. He’s grown so much-both physically and mentally-that he no longer needs me beside him to translate or to look out for him. He was sad to see me move out to California, but he loves to visit. He’s especially fond of the beach and the opportunity to travel to new places. When I come home, it is the best moment to get instantly caught up in his embrace and to know how excited he is to have his sister back home. His existence has made me realize how powerful our personalities are to the world-words are not needed to define who we are. I’ve learned from him and his friends how unique each person truly is. Individuals with special needs are never the same as another person. Each person is extremely unique, with their own likes, dislikes, medical history, and personalities. Matthew’s personality is so strong, that no word could even begin to describe it. He is one of the most loving people I have ever met, and his trustworthiness and sense of compassion and understanding for the world around him is why I truly admire him.