Autistic teen defies odds, begins project to help others

A Columbus North High School senior diagnosed with autism at age 2 is working to help individuals with disabilities advocate for themselves.

Brandon Mitchell, 18, has developed 25 self-advocacy cards as part of his senior project to help individuals who may struggle to speak in public.

The wallet-sized cards also are meant to be a tool for individuals who may not be able to speak for themselves in a crisis situation or if they get stopped by a police officer, Mitchell said.

The cards also include tips to individuals who are given the card about how they can help those with disabilities, including speaking slowly, calmly and clearly. He said the cards will allow law enforcement officers to gain a better understanding and provide assistance.

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Mitchell, who carries his own self-advocacy card that lists his disability and contact information for his parents, partnered with special education teacher Mary Hamlin and Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers on the project.

Myers, who was approached to help last summer, said the cards will help law enforcement officers better understand what issues an individual might have, whether it might be someone who is deaf or an individual who may be unable to speak.

The information on the cards will help police officers more quickly evaluate the situation, Myers said.

“The more information we have, the better we can help people,” Myers said. “Families will feel better knowing their loved ones have these cards.”

Hamlin, who has worked with Mitchell the past four years at North, is among those who praised him for being an advocate for other individuals who face disabilities.

Hamlin said at one time, Mitchell struggled to communicate ideas, with those instances resulting in phone calls to his parents to help resolve situations.

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the Autism Speaks website, an advocacy organization for families and individuals with autism.

Mitchell uses his cell phone to text to communicate, and it’s not uncommon for Hamlin to receive texts from him after school hours, she said.

“Brandon has grown and matured in many ways, but I’m most impressed with his emotional growth,” Hamlin said. “It is impressive that as a teenager, he now embraces and accepts himself as a person with autism.”

Hamlin said in doing so, she believes that Mitchell sees how his autism has helped him in many ways.

“Yes, it impedes his communication. But with embracing this, he works diligently to improve and he will ask for help from those he trusts when he either does not understand others or if others do not understand him,” Hamlin said.

His mother, Renee Mitchell, said she is proud of her son’s accomplishments, which includes obtaining a driver’s license and becoming employed at the JayC Food Store on Jonathan Moore Pike, where he has worked since September.

“He feels comfortable and accepted, and that makes a huge difference,” she said. “His emotional development is probably what I’m most proud of over the last few years.”

‘He’s his own person’

Mitchell had no real vocabulary when he was first diagnosed with classic autism at age 2, his mother said.

Renee Mitchell helped her son using baby sign language, picture cards and practiced words with him at a young age, she said.

But after her family relocated to Columbus from Washington state in 2005, her then-5-year-old son found the support he needed from Southside Elementary School teachers, Renee Mitchell said.

Now an A and B student who is on track to graduate from North in the spring, Brandon Mitchell is also working to become independent and hopes to have his own apartment, his father Trent Mitchell said.

“He’s shown he can be on his own,” he said. “He’s his own person and he’s proud of it.”

Helping others is part of his job at JayC Food Store, where he is considered to be a valuable employee, shift manager Raquel Ketner said.

Mitchell is responsible for stocking bread, pulling items forward on the shelves and helping bag groceries as well, she said.

Ketner learned about Brandon’s self-advocacy cards and said having a card made for her brother, who sustained a brain injury, would be helpful.

She has seen him develop as an individual in the few months he has worked at the store.

“I think he has a really bright future ahead of him,” Ketner said.

While he doesn’t plan to attend college, Mitchell does intend to continue working and hopes to get his own apartment at some point.

Renee Mitchell said she’s proud of his son for stepping up to help others around him, describing him as a caring young man who likes to be social and make a difference.

“He’s been my inspiration,” he said.

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Age: 18

School: Senior at Columbus North High School

Family: Parents, Trent and Renee Mitchell; siblings Anne-Marrie, Logan; grandparents, Linda and Gary Barrett, and Peg and Dutch Mitchell

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“It is impressive that as a teenager, he now embraces and accepts himself as a person with autism.”

— Mary Hamlin, special education teacher at Columbus North High School