Kindness that unlocked a soul

A casual ‘good night’ from an acquaintance helped an Orchards boy break through the barriers of autism, leading to a book by Vancouver author Karen Kingsbury

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

A Webcast with Karen Kingsbury

Vancouver Christian fiction author Karen Kingsbury is offering a webcast from 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, timed to the release of her new novel, “Unlocked.” The webcast will stream on http://www.karenkingsbury.com/live. See http://www.karenkingsbury.com for more information.

The webcast focuses on autism and bullying, two topics explored in “Unlocked.” Kingsbury hosts the event along with her daughter, Kelsey Russell. Her son Tyler Russell will perform his original song, “Just Beyond the Clouds.”

The webcast also features autism experts and two local families who have been touched by autism.

In addition, Kingsbury will unveil the person chosen to be the face of Cody Coleman, a character from her new Bailey Flanigan series. Kelsey Russell is the face of and inspiration for the character Bailey. The series launches in March.

For years, Mitch Thatcher was emotionally and physically withdrawn. He didn’t like to make eye contact or participate in groups and struggled with sensory overload. Even indoors, Mitch, who is on the autism spectrum, wore a coat with the hood up as a buffer from the outside world.

“I felt more in my own space,” Mitch, 14, recalled.

But about four years ago, Mitch started participating in Christian Youth Theater Vancouver/Portland. A casual “good night” from fellow participant Tyler Russell changed Mitch’s life. That one interaction helped him gain the confidence needed to break through his barriers and engage with the world around him.

“That was pretty amazing,” said Mitch, who lives in Orchards and is an eighth-grader in the Battle Ground HomeLink Program. “The whole night I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It made me feel really good. I was more outgoing after that. I started making more friends.”

His parents, Carrie and Garen Thatcher, have been amazed by the transformation.

“That single incident was like something flipped a light switch or a soul switch,” Carrie said. “We talk all the time in our culture about how a ‘hello’ or a smile can change someone’s day, and here it changed the course of someone’s life for the better.”

Seeing what a difference a simple act of kindness can make also had a powerful impact on best-selling Vancouver Christian fiction author Karen Kingsbury, who is the mother of Mitch’s CYT friend, Tyler. Kingsbury, 47, wrote a book, “Unlocked,” inspired by Mitch.

“Unlocked” comes out Tuesday, and Kingsbury is streaming a webcast that day from 5 to 6 p.m. that explores topics such as autism, a developmental disability. Autism spectrum disorders encompass a wide range of symptoms, from social quirks to a complete inability to interact and communicate.

The webcast also will tackle bullying and the power of friendship and music. This is Kingsbury’s first webcast. She likens the format to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” It can be found online at http://www.karenkingsbury.com/live.

Kingsbury and her daughter, Kelsey Russell, co-host the webcast, which filmed Friday in Portland before a live audience. It features Mitch and Carrie, as well as the Williamses, another local family touched by autism. The program also includes insights from autism experts. And Tyler performs his original song, “Just Beyond the Clouds.”

Several years ago, speaking before a live audience would have been out of the question for Mitch, but he’s become accustomed to performing for groups since joining CYT at his older sister Elaine’s behest.

Mitch began working backstage with the performing arts training program, but a little encouragement from Tyler prompted him to step in front of the curtain. Mitch has performed ensemble roles in CYT productions such as “Peter Pan,” “Scrooge,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Into the Woods.” He recently landed his first lead role in a major CYT production, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Mitch started rehearsals earlier this month. He plays the rabbi in the musical, which is being put on by CYT’s Vancouver East branch and begins Dec. 3.

Breaking down barriers

Like they did for Mitch, music and friendship help break down barriers for Holden Harris, the fictional autistic teen “Unlocked” centers on. Seeing Mitch thrive in CYT planted the idea for the story in Kingsbury’s mind.

“When I saw Mitch up on stage, I literally sat in the audience and had tears streaming down my face,” Kingsbury said. “I felt like the transformation was a miracle. He was up there singing and dancing, and he came up and said hi to me. He didn’t approach people like that before.”

Mitch and his family give Tyler a lot of credit for that transformation, but Tyler says he had no idea how much a simple, friendly exchange would mean to Mitch.

“I just knew that if I was in his position of being shy and younger and new to CYT, I would have wanted one of the older kids to come talk to me, as well,” said Tyler, 18, a senior at King’s Way Christian Schools. “It just taught me to never walk past someone or brush someone aside, but treat people the way I would want them to treat me and just take every opportunity to reach out.”

Kingsbury hopes “Unlocked” will encourage more people to be welcoming and accepting.

“It’s really a story about kindness and breaking the mold, that not everyone has to look and act a certain way,” she said.

Helping to tell that story during the webcast will be Ingrid Williams of Vancouver. She and her husband, Rob Williams, have 10-year-old twins, Dylan and Evan, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. Kingsbury knows the Williams family because one of her children is in class with their son Logan at King’s Way Christian Schools.

Unlike Mitch, Dylan and Evan are nonverbal. They have, however, found ways to break through their communication barriers in the past few years.

Dylan and Evan, fifth-graders at Lake Shore Elementary School, have been communicating through basic sign language and pictures since an early age. About three years ago, they began typing what they wanted to say on laptops.

This helped alleviate the aggression and frustration caused by being cut off from others, Ingrid said. She and Rob are working on getting portable devices that will read aloud what Dylan and Evan type.

In addition to typing, the twins also discovered that — despite their sensory sensitivities — they loved going to amusement parks and listening to music. They also joined the Giants team, part of the Columbia River Miracle League, a nonprofit organization that gives youths with special needs the opportunity to play baseball. They have weekly games throughout the fall and spring at Harmony Sports Complex in east Vancouver.

“It’s brought them out of their shell to be able to participate in an organized sport, learn the rules of a sport, and be able to function in a typical setting on a baseball field with loud noises and people cheering,” Ingrid said.

Once unwilling to be touched, now Dylan and Evan will indicate they want affection by hugging themselves, then pointing to the person they want to hug them. Sometimes, they’ll even give others spontaneous hugs.

“That’s the most rare and the best,” Ingrid said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.