Published: Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Matt Reed: Why did you decide to raise awareness for autism?
Drew Lachey: In 1994, my mother adopted a little boy who, unbeknownst to her, ended up having autism. So it’s something me and my family deal with on an everyday basis. For me, raising awareness about autism is more of a way for me to try and help my mom. Obviously I don’t live at home — I’m a little bit old for that — but she goes through it every day. Every day is a challenge with new stresses and new realities setting in. So for me, trying to use what recognition I have to try and raise awareness is the least that I can do.
MR: How long have you been doing this for?
DL: I started getting involved with Autism Speaks about a year and a half ago, attending events that they sponsor. I also just did “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” on behalf of Autism Speaks. It’s just little things like that, trying to get the word out there. Every day the word gets out there more, and people are starting to realize what an epidemic it is.
MR: Why do you think autism gets so little notice?
DL: I think because, unlike a lot of the other diseases that get major funding — diabetes, cancer, leukemia, AIDS — autism isn’t deadly. You’re not faced with this mortality rate, but what I think people fail to understand is that this is truly an epidemic. One out of every 100 kids is diagnosed with autism [in the United States]. It’s rising at a huge rate. It really isn’t getting a lot of the attention, I think, because people can live with it, but we have to start looking at the quality of life, not only for the people who do have it but their families as well.
MR: Can you tell me anything about your personal experiences or your mother’s experiences with autism?
DL: Every day is a story. My brother Zac gets hyper-focused on one item in the grocery store. It could be the most random thing in the world [like] a bowl of rice. He gets fixated on it. There’s no breaking his attention, and he’ll have a tantrum. He is 15 years old. A tantrum at 15 isn’t the same as when you have a two year old who wants candy. It’s not the same thing. He’s a young man. He’s almost 6-feet-tall and 180 pounds. He’s the size of a man but has the capacity sometimes of a child. There’s also frustration in dealing with his triggers and social cues. He’s a high-functioning Asperger’s case, so his situations are different from everybody else, but the constant frustration that comes along with trying to raise somebody that has autism is a daily challenge for my mom. Is he going to be able to go to college? Is he going to be able to live on his own? Is he going to be able to socially become capable enough to get a girlfriend and get married? So, you have to look past just raising an Asperger’s child to what’s their quality of life going to be like, and trying to set them up so they can have as close to a normal life as possible.
MR: Where else have you been speaking lately?
DL: I did a couple of speeches at different colleges. This is the first time I’ve spoke about autism. Normally my speaking engagements are more about following your dreams, inspirational motivational kinds of things. But honestly, this is a much more meaningful speech to me because I feel about getting the word out to people who are in a position to make a difference. This is the future generation of the politicians, doctors and teachers, so getting the word out and raising awareness now is really going to be key to fixing the problem down the road.
MR: Have you seen any positive stories throughout the past couple years in regards to more people getting involved with making positive strides in autism awareness?
DL: I remember when “Rain Man” came out, nobody knew what autism was. It was not as common, and I had never even heard of it. At that point, everybody thought if you had autism, you were rocking back and forth in your chair and you [had to] count toothpicks on the floor. That’s what people thought autism was, this kind of idiot savant thing. I think people now have a different idea. There’s a better understanding of it. People have opinions about it. Some of them are completely off the wall and unfounded. Some of them are possible, like what causes it. Some people think it’s from vaccines and drinking out of plastic bottles. Whatever the idea is, people are at least talking about it now. [The] government is making it a point to promote awareness. That’s in no small part due to the parents of kids with autism getting out there, getting the word out, raising awareness and forcing people to listen to them. So I think there have been dramatic strides in the past four or five years, but we have a long way to go.
MR: A lot of people are talking about the swine flu vaccine. Do you think there’s a link between increased vaccinations and the rise in autism?
DL: I have a 3-year-old, so every time it’s time for a new vaccination, we go straight to our doctor, who we trust very much. Every time you think something’s fine, there’s another report that says vaccines are causing [autism]. Honestly, if I said I had an opinion one way or the other, I would just be fueling the fire. I have no idea what causes it. I wish I did. I wish there was some sort of concrete evidence out there, but for every report that says this is what causes it, there are five that say it doesn’t. So at this point it’s still too early to tell. That’s why we have to keep raising money and keep researching it and finding out what truly does cause it before we get down to one in every 50 kids, one in every 25 kids. Boys are five times more likely to get it than girls. I mean, why would that be? If it is vaccines, why would it affect boys more than girls? There are lots of different triggers that make you question whether or not that is the true cause. Hopefully we’ll find out soon.
MR: For the students who are reading this interview, what kind of action would you like them to take?
DL: For anybody, donating to an autism charity is hugely helpful. Autism Speaks is a great one; Easter Seals is another — there’s a ton of great charities out there. Also, when you’re voting and talking with others, keep this in mind. This isn’t something that’s going away. If anything, this is getting worse — it’s compounding. It’s going to be something we are going to have to contend with for a long time to come. Also, stay educated on the signs of autism, so that when you have children, you are able to identify it early because that is a very crucial part of it.