04/27/08 — Charlie's world

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Charlie's world

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 27, 2008 2:00 AM

Charlie Royal runs a finger across the face in the photograph his teacher is holding.

"Who is that Charlie?" asks Ricky Lofton, one of the Life Skills instructors at Southern Wayne High School. "Is that your mom?"

The boy grins and nods his head.

He knows it is his mother, Alice. He just doesn't say so.

He has never really said anything.

Charlie stares at the picture for a moment and looks away.

He starts toward the classroom door, then turns around and paces back -- stopping only when he reaches his teacher's side.

He looks down at the picture and grins again.

He curls his fingers and jumps up and down.

But then a stack of puzzle boxes catches his eye, and he moves on.

A few minutes later, he is staring at the label on a cabinet door.

Charlie is constantly looking for stimulation.

And when he finds it, he fixates on its source.

The 18-year-old has autism.

Charlie wasn't even 2 years old when Alice began suspecting he was "a little different."

He was walking on time, but hadn't said a word.

He was particularly fussy and hated to be touched.

"I knew there was something going on but just couldn't put my hand on it," Alice said. "I felt like maybe there was something wrong with his hearing because he was kind of unresponsive. I would say something and he would just sit there. He wouldn't even flinch."

But physically, Charlie appeared "normal."

So when she took him to the family doctor, he had no diagnosis to give.

"The doctor said he just didn't think anything was wrong with him," Alice said. "But he said if I wanted to, I could go to the Developmental Evaluation Center and get him tested."

That afternoon, she put in a call to the DEC and a few weeks later, had a conversation with a member of its staff that changed her life.

"I told her about Charlie. And then I said to her, 'What could it be?'" Alice said. "She said, 'Well, we need to see him and we need to evaluate him, but from what you are describing, do you know anything about autism?' I said, 'No. I mean, I have heard of it. I have seen the movie Rain Man.'"

Alice had no idea that more than 16 years later, she would be an "expert of sorts" on the disorder.

She would know all about the tantrums and the hard work associated with potty training a developmentally disabled child.

She would be able to relate to nearly two decades of sleepless nights and providing around-the-clock supervision for her son.

She would feel the sting of constant pinching and wear the bruises created by a child who just wouldn't give in.

All that would come.

But when she first heard the word 'autism,' she really did not know what to expect.

"The first thing I did was go to the library. I started reading this book, and it was just scary. It was horrifying to me," Alice said. "I was reading a book on autism and at the same time, I was reading a book on my son. It described specific things."

Like Charlie's fascination with "random objects" -- tin foil and light bulbs.

"He would just sit there for hours with a piece of tin foil. I thought it was so strange. Why was he so attracted to something like that?" Alice said. "Or a piece of a puzzle -- he wanted to hold it, but he wasn't interested in fitting it in to where it was supposed to go. So I am reading this book, and it's like, 'Oh my God. This is Charlie.'"

Immediately, she called the woman at the DEC.

"I told her about what I read and that I thought Charlie had autism, and she said it would take sixth months to get an appointment," Alice said. "I told them, 'I'm not waiting six months. I just can't. I won't make it.'"

She needed someone to tell her everything would be OK.

And if it wouldn't be, she just wanted to know.

Two days later, an appointment opened up.

"They could tell from the moment he walked in that he had autism," Alice said. "They could just tell."

It is late morning and Charlie and his classmates are in the Southern Wayne cafeteria.

He eats his green beans when Lofton insists, but is more focused on the slice of pizza on his tray -- and the Pepsi bottle in his hand.

"The first thing he does is flip the pizza over," Lofton says. "And if there's pepperoni or anything else on it, you better believe Charlie is picking every one of them off. He won't have any of that."

He starts eating the back of the slice.

But then he sees lights flashing on the drink machine across the room.

He gets up and starts toward it.

"He is really interested in that drink machine for some reason," Lofton says. "I wish I knew what he was thinking sometimes."

Charlie stops and stares at the flashing lights around the bill acceptor.

He grins and curls his fingers.

"He's stemming out on it," Lofton says.

But it only takes a minute for him to lose interest.

And in a flash, he is making his way back to his seat, back to his pizza and his Pepsi.

"When he sees something he likes, he'll start stemming off and you're best not to stop him," Lofton says. "When he's done, he'll get back to what he is supposed to."

Getting Charlie to the point where he could function in a school setting took nearly a decade, Alice said.

In fact, for years, every time she took him out of the house was a "battle."

"It was real iffy. Whether he would see something in a store he just wouldn't give up or whether he just decided he wanted to go somewhere else, it was difficult," Alice said. "I mean, I wanted to take him out, but it was just easier to stay home. I've carried him out of stores before, crying myself, because it was just so awful."

But knowing there is no cure for autism, she committed herself to helping Charlie become a functioning member of society.

"I just decided that he needed to go out," Alice said. "Sure,
isolating him would have been easier, but it wouldn't make him any better."

So they started going out more and even attended the Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicaped Children (TEACCH) program in Chapel Hill together.

"They worked with him and gave us ideas of what he could do," Alice said. "It was sort of therapy. They just told us, 'You just have to help them and work with them and make the best out of what you have.'"

The bell rings and Faye Viney is waiting.

Alice's assistant sees Charlie emerge from the classroom and waves.

"Oh he knows me," Faye says. "This is my baby. I'm like his second mom."

She has been with the Royals nearly 10 years.

She looks after Charlie when Alice is working or tired.

But Faye would tell you that spending time with the young man is more than just a job.

It's about making progress with someone she has come to love.

"We have come a long way," Faye says. "When I first started with Charlie, he didn't want to be touched or anything. Now we hug real tight. That is mandatory."

Charlie curls his fingers when they embrace.

He keeps his eyes open and stares over Faye's shoulder.

But then he starts toward the car.

He knows exactly where he wants to go, Faye says.

"I've been around Charlie so long, I can just about tell you what he wants, what he is thinking. Even though he is non-verbal, he can tell me anywhere in Goldsboro he wants to go."

They get in the car and start moving.

Charlie points.

When Faye makes a turn, he points again.

"It's not like he's pointing just to be pointing. He knows exactly where he wants to go," she says. "We're the ones that do all the talking and don't understand each other. Charlie can just say, 'Hey, I want to go here.'"

Today, it's McDonald's.

Tomorrow, it might be Hollywood Video or Chick-fil-A.

But the important thing, to Faye anyway, is that he knows.

"I don't feel sorry for Charlie. He is content. He is happy," Faye says. "He is just doing his own little thing."

As soon as they pull into the family driveway, Charlie becomes a different person.

He is no longer interested in interacting with others.

Like most teenagers, he just wants some independence, Faye and Alice say.

So he throws off his school clothes and slips on a pair of Coca-Cola pajamas and a white T-shirt.

It's the only outfit he will wear at home, Alice says.

"I guess he is just like any other teenager. At home, he is kind of lazy and just hangs around, but at school, he does more."

Charlie heads up the stairs and walks into his room.

"Basically, his life is going to school, coming home and watching videos," Alice says. "Once he gets home, he goes straight to the TV. He has it on all the time when he's home. He's very regimented."

But he doesn't scan the channels to find a particular program.

He only watches Disney videos.

And he never makes it all the way through a film.

In fact, he is only really interested in a six-second clip.

He craves the stimulation, his mother says.

Today it is "Snow White."

Six seconds of dwarfs singing and marching across the screen.

Charlie smiles and curls his fingers.

He jumps up and down and paces back and forth.

When he is satisfied, he hits rewind.

Always to the exact same place.

Always spot on.

Neither Alice nor Faye can believe it.

"For me and you, we couldn't do that in a million tries," Faye says. "But Charlie, that's like his specialty."

It is enough to drive some people crazy, she adds.

But for Charlie, it is just his way.

Alice often thinks about the future.

She wonders if Charlie will ever speak, if he will ever be able to live without her to lean on.

And she knows that someday, she will have to let him go.

"One day I am going to have to face the fact that I am going to have to find a place for him," Alice says. "Not because I want to, but because I feel like it would be selfish for me to keep him here."

So in the meantime, she enjoys every day in his presence.

Sure, she might not ever hear him say, "I love you."

She might not ever get the chance to watch him get married or to sit in the car while he learns to drive.

But none of that seems to matter.

Charlie's love is all she needs.

"In this hectic world we live in, he makes you appreciate the little things. Every time he makes progress, it makes us happy -- when he tries broccoli and cheese or whatever," Alice says. "It's hard, but I don't know Charlie in any other way. So yes, I might not get to celebrate things like the day he gets his license, and I was thrilled when (his older sister), Lizzie, did those things, but I just never had those goals for Charlie. I just wanted him to be able to go with me to the store and not run away."

And at the end of the day, she simply wants what all mothers hope for their children.

"The spectrum of autism is so broad. I mean, you have people with autism who have written books and others that do things on farms, but that isn't Charlie," Alice says. "My dreams aren't for him to be able to drive a car or go to college. I just want him to be happy where he is. I just want him to be OK."