The average 2-year-old can speak more than 100 words. By 3, that number jumps to anywhere from 200 to 1,000. Michael Swaner never hit those milestones. In 32 years he has never spoken a word.
As an infant, Michael was diagnosed with severe low-functioning autism, a neurological disorder that impedes brain development. More than one million people in the United States are affected by autism, though only a small percentage of those cases are as severe as Michael’s.
“If there’s one thing you don’t get enough of with autism, it’s affection,” said Michael’s mother Ruth Swaner, USU graduate and author of the book “Words Born of Silence.”
The book, Swaner’s third, is about her personal journey in dealing with the anger, denial, acceptance and what she likes to call “over-dedication” of autism.
“One day my oldest son came up to me and said ‘We’re tired of helping you take care of Michael,'” she said. This was a turning point. She realized that she was so caught up in Michael’s needs that she wasn’t meeting the needs of her family or herself.
“She’s been through a lot with her son,” said Margaret Jacobs, a friend of Swaner’s who has worked with autistic children in the Netherlands. “She’s gotten through it with faith and friends.”
In his childhood, caring for Michael was a 24-hour-a-day task. Swaner said often one of the most pronounced symptoms of autism is a bizarre obsession with certain items. Unfortunately for Swaner, Michael’s childhood fixations were with water, dirt, and his own feces.
One night, she woke up and he had smeared his feces all over the wall. Another time, when the Swaners were remodeling their current home in Smithfield, she left Michael in the living room while she went to change her clothes.
Hearing some unusual noise, she walked down the stairs to find that Michael had taken all of the dirt out of her flower pots, mixed it with water and coated the walls in mud.
“I simply cried,” she said. “He didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, he just liked the texture.” Not knowing what to do, she called her new neighbor Christina Greene, who she had never met.
Christina had a son named Luke who, like Michael, suffered from severe autism. Even at the prompting of close friends, Swaner had resisted meeting her.
“If she hadn’t fallen apart like I had, I didn’t want to meet her,” Swaner said. Christina immediately came to her aid, gathering neighbors to help clean up the mess.
By the time Swaner came back down the stairs, the mess was clean, Michael was being watched by a neighbor, and there was a fresh loaf of bread sitting on the counter.
It was the start of a 25-year friendship, or as Swaner puts it. “a 25-year journey helping autistic children.”
“I learned I didn’t have to be a perfect Mormon mother,” Swaner said. “I learned to ask for help.”
Michael’s autism was severe enough that at age 13 he was placed in a group home that could meet his needs. However, there are many autism-diagnosed students who live fully functional lives and attend school full time. For students whose needs may often fly under the radar, there are resources all over Cache Valley and at USU.
Diane Baum, director of the Disability Resource Center, said the center is open to any student that needs help. This includes those who have any form of autism.
“We look at every individual case,” Baum said. “We’ve even had graduate students with autism.” Students may qualify for extra time on tests, or a private exam room. It all depends on their needs, she said.
Even though Michael is no longer living at home, his journey is far from over. He still visits his parents on occasion, and comes home for family holidays. Now that Ruth and her husband are in their 60s, bringing him home is a challenge.
“The home can do fun things for him that we couldn’t do like shopping, movies, and going to fairs,” she said.
Although it has been a long road, Swaner said she wouldn’t change what she’s been through. She says it’s because of Michael that she discovered her ability to write.
Although at first she wrote only therapeutically in journals, with friends’ encouragement she sent a selection of her writing to The Deseret News. From there, she went on to write for many publications and became president of the Utah League of Writers.
“He’s given me this gift,” she said. “I would have never known that I could be a professional writer without him.”
The greatest lesson Swaner has learned through her journey is that accepting service from others is a keystone in life, and that nobody is perfect.
“You do what you can do with the opportunities you have at hand,” she said. “No woman with autistic children should do this without help. You don’t have to bear this alone.”
Copies of Swaner’s book can be found online at Amazon, IUniverse and Borders. They can also be found at The Book Table and Lee’s Marketplace in Smithfield. She will have a book signing hosted by The Book Table Dec. 3 from 6 p.m. to 12 p.m.