Will share story at upcoming Starry Starry Night event
by Shannon Carr, Communications and Social Media Specialist
Giancarlo Aiuto is more than a younger brother to 22-year-old sister, Alyssa. He is her muse.
After graduating in May from University of San Francisco with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology, Alyssa was inspired to deviate from her plan to find a career in counseling. Her thoughts leapt to San Jose-based Morgan Autism Center, where her brother marked his 11th year as a student in November.
“Giancarlo has always been a really easygoing student,” says Executive Director Brad Boardman, previously Giancarlo’s teacher. “He enjoys being with people and is enthusiastic about being a part of all school activities.”
Alyssa admits that through the years she has seen changes in her brother, much of which she credits to the nonpublic school.
“Since he’s been here, he’s learned so much; everything,” Alyssa says. “From tying his shoes to riding a bike. He’s reading, he’s talking more.”
And, above all else, he has found acceptance.
“The environment here — you can’t fake the love that the teachers have for the kids,” she says. “And, you know, for the first time it was like, ‘Wow, everyone that works here sees how special my brother is just like I do and they love him just like I do. And they want him to do well and learn.’”
Wanting to give back to the organization that has done so much for her family, Alyssa called Boardman to inquire about any employment opportunities that were available. He called her in for an interview, at which point Alyssa had a tour of the site.
“I knew it would be different than just being with my brother because there’s so many different kids here with different needs,” she said. “…I went to a few different classrooms, and I loved it.”
In particular, she found a strong connection to Room 17, led by teacher Kendra Comstock.
“When I first walked in, (student) Jack just came right up to me and clapped and grabbed my hands, and had a big smile on his face,” Alyssa explained of what sealed her desire to be placed there. “…That’s the room that they put me in.”
Since June, the Union City residents — born a mere 363 days apart — have been going to and from the school every day, together.
“At first it was just kind of difficult getting into the groove of everything,” Alyssa says. “There are kids with behavior (challenges) that I’ve never dealt with before.”
She continues: “But then after working here I was like, ‘Wow. This is where I’m supposed to be.’ Seeing the kids progress and also such a supportive staff — just working as a team, always willing to step in and help — it’s been really great and I just know for sure this is what I want to do.”
It has also been nice, she says, being able to spend extra time with her brother – particularly after being away at college.
While her brother may live with autism, Alyssa emphasizes that he is not defined by the developmental disability he was diagnosed with at 2 years old.
“Don’t just think of autism as a label and that every person with autism feels the same way, acts the same way,” she says. “That just like everyone else they’re extremely unique individuals.”
He is, however, made up by a myriad of interests that range from listening to a variety of music, watching Disney movies, “supervising” his mom while she cooks and completing jigsaw puzzles.
“He can pick up a piece and know exactly where it belongs, and our kitchen table is usually covered in the pieces of the puzzle that G is working on,” Alyssa says. “He goes around the house and gives us all high fives as he makes progress, and has a framed 5,000-piece puzzle in his room that he completed a while back.”
Above all else, though, Alyssa says Giancarlo is about all things water.
“He loves to go swimming, go to the beach, even play in the sink,” she says. “Our grandma passed away a long time ago but she used to call him ‘aqua boy.’”
While she has many fond memories of having a brother with autism, Alyssa admits their childhood together wasn’t always so easy.
“I had some friends, these boys that were in the neighborhood, and I remember they came over and just started making fun of my brother,” she recalls. “So I said, ‘OK you guys. Get out.’ And I closed the door, and closed the windows. That’s kind of how I would choose my friends and who I wanted to hang out with, by the way they treated my brother. He comes first.”
Rather than let it get her down though, Alyssa admits she instead developed invaluable skills she continues utilizing as an instructional aide at Morgan Autism Center on a daily basis.
“I think most of all the patience,” Alyssa says. “When he was younger, he did get into some stuff, mess with my belongings or break some of my stuff. … I just had to learn it’s not that big of a deal. They’re just things.”
Alyssa is thankful to continue raising awareness, which has been important to her from a young age.
“I always, when I was little, would say, ‘When I grow up I’m going to cure autism,’” Aiuto says. “I can’t do that, but I can work with this population. The way that teachers have helped my brother; helped him just grow and flourish and learn so many skills that help him have a better life, I wanted to do that too. It’s been awesome.”
Shannon Carr is Communications and Social Media Specialist with Morgan Autism Center. She formerly worked for more than six years at different Bay Area News Group publications.