Written by Diana Paddock, correspondent | 22 March 2018
Third grade was a milestone for each of the Corner boys. For Nathan Corner, who is now 22, it was the year myriad pieces fell into place and he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism that sometimes includes high academic functioning and awkward or non-existent social skills.
For his younger brother, Ben, who is now a junior at Orange County High School, it was the year he got tired of people misunderstanding autism. It was the year his beloved big brother, Nathan – or Nate – got pushed down the steps at school by bullies, the year he watched as they patched Nate together again – his broken nose, broken cheekbone, a tooth pushed into his nasal cavity.
“Nate was not invited to birthday parties or anything like that,” Ben said of his brother, who is five years his senior. Ben recognized, even at a young age, the brutal unfairness Nate suffered because of his autism.
It was the same year Ben was at a birthday party and recognized the symptoms of autism in another child his age. Ben’s time playing with the other boy was cut short by the boy’s mother, who was embarrassed when her son unintentionally pushed Ben.
When Ben explained that he understood autism and all was well, the mother became enraged and left with her son.
Ben was baffled. And upset. If he could understand autism and embrace its many nuances, then certainly others should be able to learn to do the same.
Within a few years, by sixth-grade middle school, Ben was equipped to share that understanding, and he started to fight the stigma and ignorance surrounding autism.
Project: Turn Orange Blue was born.
Celebrating its fifth year in 2018, Turn Orange Blue will be observed in Orange County Public Schools and businesses during the week of April 9-13. The day of April 11 will be designated as the specific day they “Light It Up Blue for Autism,” wear blue, show support for autism awareness, and raise money for the national organization Autism Speaks.
“Each school does different things,” Ben’s mother, Sharon, explained, including daily announcements to raise awareness and a project in a school store.
Even the drama team at the high school participated, producing The Other Room, which illustrates the difference between a general portrayal of events compared to an autistic perspective. The play raised awareness, and the drama team took it to different schools to perform.
Sharon said members of the drama team were surprised at what they learned both from themselves and others. They never realized how people with autism were treated or how that treatment impacted lives, Sharon explained.
Retail support for the effort has been “amazing,” Sharon said. Among the participants, Doughlicious Donuts in Locust Grove bakes dozens of donuts, ices them blue for the event and distributes them to participating venues. The sweet treat has become very popular, regularly selling out.
Ben, the youngest of four children, and his mother spearhead Project: Turn Orange Blue in the community to support autism, but Ben has even more to offer. A trumpet player in the marching band, Ben also participates in Funerals Across America for whom he has played Taps on the bugle for several military funerals. He also plays the moving tribute at Lake of the Woods and Orange County veteran events. He has won two outstanding youth awards, one from Lake of the Woods and the Garvis Huff Award from the Orange County Office on Youth and Youth Commission for his efforts to raise awareness about autism.
Like many children who fall along the spectrum disorder of autism, Nate’s diagnosis did not come easily. Although he was “off the charts in math,” Sharon explained, he had “no filter on his mouth… He was a little weird. He was obsessed with things. He had no friends. It was very rough.”
Nathan’s diagnosis and continuing education afterward was easiest when his educators understood, Sharon said. “When you have teachers who don’t understand, it makes it difficult,” she said. “He’s just different.”
One of Nathan’s educators who did understand was Martha Roby, principal at Locust Grove Middle School. When Nathan was injured in the stairwell of the school, she addressed it effectively and was “very aware,” Sharon explained.
Today, Nate is doing janitorial services for Germanna College and the Locust Grove Food Lion.
Ben’s efforts to heighten autism awareness have been met by some proverbial lights being turned on in people’s brains and a great deal of gratitude. One mother expressed it best when she shook Ben’s hand and thanked him for “making such a difference in our schools and for our kids!”
He is looking at colleges now, hoping to major in science or engineering, but Ben is confident Project: Turn Orange Blue will continue in the capable hands of the high school student council and with the school teachers and counselors who already participate.
Ben also will continue to promote autism awareness. He and Sharon have been named school engagement leaders for Orange County.
“Education will most definitely help you understand,” Ben explained.
But people need to accept differences in others, even if they don’t understand. “Nathan was bullied because he was different,” Sharon said.
Ultimately, Ben wants to avoid the long-term effect of autism on the individual. “It’s more of a psychological thing,” he explained. People who have autism “won’t make friends; they are cautious of others; they suffer depression.”
A bully’s actions have long-term effects too, Ben said. “It’s a bad habit,” he said, “and if you carry that into the real world, it’s not going to get you far.”