When Maria McFadden Maffucci found out that her son James was diagnosed with autism at four years old, she had a hard time accepting it at first.
“I argued with everyone initially that he wasn’t autistic, because my idea of autism was not what we now understand the spectrum to be,” she said. “I thought someone who was autistic wasn’t affectionate. He was very affectionate.”
The longtime editor of the Human Life Review evolved into a place where she could accept his diagnosis, and the New York City native was fortunate to have gotten him the help that he needed through speech therapy.
Now 26, James went to a private special needs school in Manhattan before enrolling in a day habilitation program after the family relocated to Mamaroneck, NY. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the transition to a new normal hit James pretty hard at first according to his mom.
“It’s been kind of a journey,” she said. “I think he was over-medicated to start with. And we’ve been weaning him off things and he was really kind of getting there and doing more stuff when the pandemic hit, and then everything stopped, that was definitely a setback.”
A couple of weeks ago, he went back to his day habilitation program, but he was starting to have some difficulty with the return to his old routine.
In addition to autism spectrum disorder, James also deals with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD is a common co-morbidity with autism.
“He actually went back to his program once a couple of weeks ago, and we were really excited. And now we have gone back again, because he’s anxious,” she said. “It could be that severe OCD came out.”
He enjoys spending time with his two sisters, Anna and Grace, and Maffucci describes him as a friendly young man with a great sense of humor.
“James has a wonderful sense of humor and you know they have a lot of fun together which is great to see,” she said.
In spite of this, he does struggle to maintain deep conversations with others, so friendships have always been hard to come by.
“I think for James, he can say ‘hello,’ and he can kind of make a joke or enjoy an activity, but although he speaks clearly, his language is not to the extent where he can get into a deep conversation with someone,” she said. “But he loves people, he remembers people, and he’s very social.”
Having grown up in the city, James remains a proud city boy. He has a fascination with the subway and bus system, and especially loves looking at water towers. His family recently visited the High Line in Manhattan, which has a number of water towers.
Even the loud noises and traffic one finds when roaming around the city became second nature for him. While some people on the autism spectrum tend to find loud noises overwhelming, he became accustomed to the hustle and bustle of city life.
“I guess because he grew up in the city, it didn’t necessarily bother him,” said Maffucci. “Noises would bother him because he would cover his ears, but I think you just get used to it.”
Maffucci finds that greater awareness of autism spectrum disorder as a condition has helped both her son and the rest of the family feel seen.
“Most everyone I know either has a family member on the spectrum or know someone [who is],” she said, “so whereas when James was a little boy people would look at me funny, people don’t do that anymore. They kind of know, and then they’re extra nice in stores.”
Still, she wishes that media attention would be given more to those with disabilities who are simply trying to get by, as the public tends to focus on the stories of those with disabilities who accomplish something extraordinary.
“I do think sometimes, we all love the stories of achievements and how someone had a disability and achieved this great thing anyway,” she said, “but sometimes for parents whose kids are not achieving things, it’s not the achievement that makes a disabled person’s life worthwhile, it’s the very fact that they have a life, just the fact that they exist.”