Elijah Stevenson, age 10, is already making headlines for his unique abilities. Elijah has autism spectrum disorder, a diagnosis that keeps his mother, Nerissa, busy with his therapies and managing what works for him.
“He’s considered high functioning,” Nerissa explained in a recent interview. “His ability to hyperfocus is his gift, besides having an incredible ability to connect with others and accept them for who they are.”
Elijah has participated at the Kern County Fair for the past two years with its hobby exhibition. His collection of more than 100 dinosaurs, complete with prehistoric-style plants and other figures, won First Place and Best of Show last year. These two blue ribbons underscore Elijah’s unique way of connecting with the world.
Results from the 2019 Kern County Fair, in which Elijah also participated, were still pending at press time.
The fifth grader at American Elementary School participates in a special needs program, but he is also active in Sunday school and related activities at Westside Church of Christ.
“If it wasn’t for the Lord, I don’t know where we’d be,” said Nerissa, who cites her faith as a source of strength. Elijah’s autism diagnosis came at age 3 and Nerissa, a widow, found herself in charge of a child whose behavior was difficult to work through. Her husband died of stage four lung cancer when Elijah was 9 months old. She sought professional evaluation and therapies on her own when Elijah was a toddler, in part due to his underdeveloped speech and unusual behavior.
“I can’t tell you how many times I walked out of a supermarket leaving a full cart, because we were just done. Elijah’s behavior made it impossible to shop and just complete a transaction. It can be like a temper tantrum but 100 times worse,” she said. “I didn’t understand why. Now, I understand that the sensory experience can be too much for the child, because he is hearing the wheels of the shopping cart screech and people’s conversations, and seeing all the bright colors of a grocery store. Kids like Elijah start to experience sensory overload, and the natural ‘no’ that comes as part of the shopping experience with a child is just too much.”
Nerissa describes those senses as “high-tuned”, but she says no two children with autism are exactly alike. Their skills and abilities differ greatly according to where they are on the spectrum and their individual progress, interventions, and personalities.
Elijah and the Dinosaurs
A fascination with dinosaurs became noticeable as an affinity Elijah held at about age 2. He wanted to learn relevant facts and seemed obsessed. Nerissa recalled purchasing a DVD of “The Land Before Time” but noticed that he was disappointed.
“What he wanted was a show about the real thing. We would watch these documentaries that I thought were pretty boring with paleontologists and scientists who were there trying to chip away rocks,” she said.
The fascination grew from there and Elijah continued collecting dinosaur toys.
Last year, Nerissa’s mother suggested he enter his collection in the hobby section of the Kern County Fair.
“Elijah wasn’t proficient with glue and scissors, but I showed him some things and got him going and now, he’s a champ,” said Nerissa. “It’s a six-foot island, most of which is based on movies and documentaries he has seen, that all makes sense to him. There are soldier figures, too. If someone gets eaten, well, he tells me that’s just nature. He likes gathering things throughout the year.”
What each dinosaur ate, the scientific names of each species, and its habits are all familiar facts to Elijah. In an age of distraction, his ability to focus is extraordinary and that attention to detail has made his exhibit a standout feature at Kern County Fair two years in a row.
Nerissa says no matter what prizes Elijah wins at the Fair, he is already first in her life. He has lived social situations in which he was picked last or simply not invited by his peers to participate in daily social interaction. The attitude that ‘if you’re not first, you’re last’ is really problematic,” she concluded. “That’s the most beautiful thing about these types of kids: their heart. They include everybody, even though they may live in a world that shuns them or disrespects them or puts them last. They’re all about love. They just want a friend and to be a friend. They just want to love. They just want to play. I’m so excited to see who he’s going to be, who he’s becoming. Just like his dinosaurs, Elijah is the leader of his own pack.”
The Stevenson family embraces the challenges that come with Elijah’s diagnosis. Nerissa describes herself as a patient person who has developed even more patience and empathy than she knew was possible.
“I tell my son not to worry, because the Bible clearly tells us ‘Those who are first shall be last and the last shall be first. Many are called but few are chosen,’” said Nerissa. “You are clearly somebody in God’s eyes. You are different and that’s okay.”
If you would like to donate toy dinosaurs or diorama craft supplies to Elijah, they may be left at Westside Church of Christ, marked “Special delivery for Elijah Stevenson.”
What is Autism?
Tags: Enrichment, Featured Story, Parenting, Special Needs, Tweens & Teens
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define autism as "a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with autism spectrum disorder look that sets them apart from other people, but people with autism spectrum disorder may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with autism spectrum disorder can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with autism spectrum disorder need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less."
The Autism Society - Kern Autism Society reports that more 2,000 cases of autism have been recorded in Kern County.
According to the Child Mind Institute, one in 59 children has an autism spectrum disorder. That gap may be narrowing as more cases appear. Boys are also three to four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Both genders benefit from peer inclusion.