Like many high school seniors, Alex Hannah looks forward to his upcoming prom. He doesn’t know who he will take yet, but knows he’ll leave what they wear up to her.
Unlike most of his classmates at Millington High, Alex faces a struggle which many would not understand. At just 3 years old, he was diagnosed with the pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, according to the Autism Society, and Alex is one of 3.5 million Americans who are living with the condition.
Alex’s mother Wendy Hannah said it was difficult for her family the first few years, because they didn’t know where to turn for help.
“It’s been really hard because I’m from Chicago and I don’t have family here,” she said. “We moved here when he was born, and he was diagnosed when he was 3. So there weren’t a lot of resources back then. I had read a lot of stuff on my own and that was really hard.”
Wendy said Alex had trouble grasping language skills and would get frustrated trying to communicate before he entered kindergarten.
“He wasn’t even talking,” she said. “He had some other type of language. I knew what he was saying, but nobody really wanted to deal with him. He was flipping chairs and throwing stuff, and we finally got it under control by kindergarten. He was a completely different kid.”
It was hard because other kids, they don’t understand and they would try to make him to do stuff and make fun of him. We put him in soccer and he didn’t grasp the concept of ‘they’re supposed to take the ball from you, don’t get upset, your supposed to try and keep them from getting the ball from you.’ It was hard, but we wanted to make him feel as normal as possible. — Wendy Hannah
Language wasn’t Alex’s only struggle. Wendy said it was hard for him to grasp social settings like organized sports.
“It was hard because other kids, they don’t understand and they would try to make him to do stuff and make fun of him,” Wendy said. “We put him in soccer and he didn’t grasp the concept of ‘they’re supposed to take the ball from you, don’t get upset, your supposed to try and keep them from getting the ball from you.’ It was hard, but we wanted to make him feel as normal as possible.”
For help, the Hannah family turned to Lisa Taylor and Special Olympics Greater Memphis. Wendy, who had reservations about the organization, met with Taylor, the organization’s director, to discuss getting Alex involved.
“When I first found out about it, I thought it was only for children with Down syndrome because that’s what they show on TV,” Wendy said. “But when you come and see they have all this great stuff, the tennis, swimming and bowling. It was just a welcoming feeling that they gave us, so it made me trust them.”
Special Olympics Greater Memphis has served the Memphis area for more than 35 years. From autism to Down syndrome, Special Olympics Greater Memphis serves anyone who has been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.
Photos by J.T. Mullen
When Alex first got involved, he was very shy. Now, his mother and Taylor both credit the organization for helping Alex branch out.
“With Special Olympics, he figured out that there were other people like him, and it didn’t matter certain things that he did with his autism,” Wendy said. “It was okay to do certain stuff because other people were doing it too.”
Taylor, the only employee of the organization, echoed a similar sentiment as Wendy and said this social development is a very common theme for individuals who get involved with her organization.
“He was real quiet and shy in the beginning, and now he’s very outgoing and always getting up and doing the dances, and he’s a lot of fun,” Taylor said.
Alex’s social development hasn’t been the only positive outcome. Wendy said that the non-profit organization is also just as important for the parents, as they can “use it as a support group and really look out for each other.”
Alex, who is in his eighth year with Special Olympics, said he looks forward to competing again.
“I love it,” he said. “I just enjoy being with Special Olympics.”
Staff writers Kalyn Conway and Chrissy Rodefer contributed to this story.