A soft humming sound floats down the hall toward the kitchen. Following it, Doug Thayer sees his daughter Casey looking for a jar of peanut butter. Doug and his wife Janice hid it in the dishwasher so Casey could not find it with her keen sense of smell. It is Casey's 22nd birthday. This day has huge significance for the Thayers, because with Casey's birthday comes the most significant change Casey has yet to face--moving out of her parents' house.
For most 22-year-olds, moving out happened four years earlier as they headed off to college. Casey, however, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. She is non-verbal, using her own form of sign language (mostly consisting of candy and cookie signals, naturally) and various humming sounds to communicate her needs and mood swings. People who do not have much interaction with people affected by autism often think that people like Casey are not intelligent and do not have a sense of humor, a sense of pride or a personality. Casey proves them wrong.
When the Thayers first came into my life, Doug explained that Casey has a way of reading people and judging their character upon meeting them, so when Casey took my hand on my first day photographing the family, I took that as the highest of compliments. Within the first five days of meeting them, Casey had her last high school prom, her 22nd birthday, a therapeutic riding lesson and move-in day for her new assisted living home in Jasper.
The Thayers were extremely kind to let me document the entire journey at every hour of the day and night for the next two and a half months. Watching them let go of their daughter, listening to them wonder aloud about whether she knew what was going to happen as she got on the school bus for the last time and then seeing them get used to her becoming independent taught me about the importance of family and the significance of having caring parents. It helped me to understand how my parents felt when they watched me leave a few years ago.
Seventeen years ago, The Herald ran a story about the Thayer family adjusting to their new life with Casey's autism diagnosis. Telling their story at their next big turning point with Casey was an absolute honor.
As many of you know, three of my biggest passions in life involve visual storytelling, horses and autism. The Thayers' story happened to involve all three. This story will join a handful of others I have done about autism previously. As the number and variety of stories grow, I am hoping to continue creating a larger project about autism that will connect families affected by autism with resources and with each other. The project is called World Within Our Own. If you have any ideas, suggestions, projects, or contacts related to autism and/or the project please don't hesitate to reach out to me.