Rebecca Stutsman contributed to this story.
Cody Clark, 24, is a young Louisvillian who looks like the proverbial boy next door. The 2015 University of Louisville graduate is steadily making a name for himself as a professional magician. His website reflects his major in marketing and minor in theater, with the tag line, “Using the art of magic to bring out the magic of life.”
Cody also is a young man on the autism spectrum, and he wants people to know it. His one-man magic show, “Cody Clark: A Different Way of Thinking,” emphasizes what he calls real-life magical moments alongside his sleight-of-hand feats.
During April, Autism Awareness Month, Cody exemplifies the hope people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can have to realize their dreams.
Diagnosed at 15 months, Cody and his parents were warned about all he could not do as he grew older. Doctors told his parents it could be likely that he would never have the social skills or mental capacity to succeed as an adult.
Today, however, he performs across the country as his professional magic career continues to grow. Cody speaks with enthusiasm and confidence about how his obsession with magic developed when he was in elementary school and helped lead to his success as a college student and adult with a thriving vocation as a professional performer. It is a message that was especially appreciated when he performed at the summer camp held by the University of Louisville Autism Center (ULAC) last year.
Along with their value as entertainment, his magic routines help strengthen his motor skills, social skills and goal-setting skills. He shares his personal story in his act to help audience members gain a sense of how autism causes him and others on the autism spectrum to think differently.
“I want to create connections with my audience and represent autistic people in art,” he said.
Cody also cites the support services and resources he had access to. As a client of the University of Louisville Autism Center at Kosair Charities, Cody participated in services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral intervention and social skills training.
Led by Gregory Barnes, M.D., the ULAC was established in 2010 to provide evaluation, intervention, training and research to individuals with ASD and their families. Clinical services at ULAC, under the direction of Scott Tomchek, Ph.D., provided support to 2,400 individuals and their families in 2016. The Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC), the training component of ULAC established in 1996 and directed by Larry Taylor, benefits from state-mandated support that helps provide outreach and training for educators, school leaders and families throughout Kentucky.
To help others as he was helped, Cody recently volunteered to create a training video for a new community-wide initiative that offers a certification process for local businesses that want to be recognized as autism-friendly. The video is a part of the Autism Friendly Business Initiative (AFBI), a collaborative effort among FEAT of Louisville, Meaningful Day Services and ULAC including KATC.
This 10-minute training video, featuring Cody along with other volunteers, offers portrayals of the different social interactions that can be difficult for young people on the autism spectrum to navigate. Business owners and their employees can view the video to increase their awareness of families with kids and teens on the spectrum and use strategies for communicating and interacting more effectively.
These strategies have been developed based on the research that has been conducted in ASD during the past two decades, research that Barnes said has provided the autism community with additional insight.
“We now understand that autism is a neurobiologic disorder that is diagnosed clinically; people with ASD have significant challenges with social communication skills and repetitive, restricted range of activities and interests,” Barnes said. “While children with ASD generally have these features in common, no two individuals on the autism spectrum are exactly alike.”
Families with a loved one on the spectrum know this, and use a common expression: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” since the spectrum’s impact on behaviors, cognitive abilities and activities of daily living can vary from one affected individual to another.
As much as diagnosis and treatment of ASD has advanced, there is still much to be done. More research is needed to unlock the mysteries surrounding how autism develops. Improvements in providing all children with appropriate screening, diagnosis and treatment are still required. Providers need more evidence-based medical treatments and behavioral interventions to care for their patients.
Still, the expectation today is that children with autism spectrum disorders will make progress, especially with intensive early intervention. For some children, that rate of progress may be dramatic; with other children, it is slower. About half of children with autism have cognitive impairments and about one-third of children have seizures; they also are more likely to have sleep and digestive system problems.
There are research-supported practices that are effective in teaching children with autism, including the use of visual supports, video modeling, functional behavioral assessment and behavioral intervention, social skills training and augmentative communication systems. Some children affected by autism have behavioral problems related to anxiety, irritability or attention-deficit symptoms, which may require medication or more specialized behavioral therapies.
With the progress he has made in his own life, Cody Clark continues to focus on creating the career of his dreams. He believes that people living on the autism spectrum can apply a single-minded pursuit of their passions to have a fulfilling, rewarding life. As he phrases it, “Our obsessions can lead to success.”