An interview with Vachon Brackett Sr. who spoke for his son Vachon Brackett Jr.
Interview By Brandon Bornes, Article by Tina Adams
Vachon Brackett Jr., a 9-year-old boy with autism has a lot to share with the world. Just ask his parents Vachon Brackett Sr. and his wife Gina, as they express what they feel their son wants people to understand about the autism spectrum and how he lives his life.
“Once you meet one person who’s autistic, you’ve only met one person who is autistic. This is a spectrum—that’s why it’s called Autism Spectrum disorder.”
Understanding that he thinks and feels things differently than others and being aware that he doesn’t talk is the first step to grasping Vachon’s individual needs. Those needs come out in different ways both physically and emotionally, so for us being his voice, we feel he wants people to know that people think and feel differently. He is not able to express himself in a way that is what we would consider “normal”, but at the end of the day he is going to express himself and you might not be able to receive it just as much as he can’t receive you talking to him. That’s one bit of awareness that people should know.
“I think differently, the typical things that you can do like reading a book and sitting down and having a conversation with your family—I can’t do. I sense things differently. I am different. Its okay. It’s fine for me to be me.”
Powerful and eye-opening words spoken by Brackett Sr. as he gives us a glimpse into the heart of what his name’s sake would say. Vachon Jr. communicates in an extremely different way than what some would consider a typical child does. However, he deserves the same support anyone with a disability would and should not be looked at differently because he is functioning at a different level.
Vachon, like many others his age, is attending classes via Zoom. However, third grade is proving to have its challenges because of the online environment, which makes it difficult for him to sit through cycles of learning. Typically, in the third grade, students are learning things like multiplication and division, but Vachon is trying to learn life skills to become independent.
Vachon has an app on his iPad that gives him different buttons that he can select to help him communicate. At the push of a button he can say things like, “Can I please have Wendy’s?” or “I need to use the restroom.” Just because he doesn’t vocalize doesn’t mean he can’t communicate; his father emphatically says. In my son’s mind, he tries to verbalize words, but he can’t fully. Needless to say, his parents get very excited when he is able to express words like mom and dad. And both agree the iPad that he uses to put together sentences is an invaluable tool. At level 3 on the spectrum, he can understand everything you are saying in the moment. Vachon understands and he will look at you when you are speaking, but there is a delay. “He can understand 3-5-word sentences, but anything longer than that tends to frustrate him a little,” says his father. Despite these challenges, Vachon’s family concurs that he has an electric smile and they love to see his face light up with joy.
Vachon loves to play outside and his parents think that he would live outside if he had the choice. He likes playing on the swing, and during the summer he plays with the water hose. Other activities that he enjoys include watching Thomas the Train on his iPad and taking walks with his family.
While Vachon doesn’t have a typical life, his mom and dad are working hard to make sure that he has as much of an independent life as possible. Focusing on things like teaching him how to get his own food and brush his teeth are some short- term goals that they hope will have a lasting impact for Vachon—and he works at them every single day. With the love of his parents, brother, and teachers, his future looks very bright.
Being sensitive to Vachon’s needs and physical cues are something that the Bracketts rely heavily on to be able to access what he may be feeling at the time and provide support. This can take all of five minutes or even up to an hour, but his family is there for the long-haul. Vachon’s younger brother is loving and supportive and sees his older brother as just that—his brother. Vachon is a young leader who has managed to give everyone around him a new perspective on life, one that exemplifies courage, persistence, tenacity, love, and a sense of humor. All much needed qualities that we can all use in life. While he may not be able to communicate verbally, his very essence challenges us all to be better.
Transcript of Interview with Vachon Bracket Sr.
What awareness did you want to bring to others based on your son’s perspective?
My son doesn’t talk, so in essence, My wife and I are his voice. Once you meet one person who’s autistic, you’ve only met one person who’s autistic. This is a spectrum–that’s why it’s called Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Because of his needs you have to be able to verbalize things he needs, and unfortunately, those needs come out in different ways both physical and emotional. So for us, with his voice, it’s the idea that people think and feel things differently. You can’t just look at us like we’re talking right now; we’re great, we can receive it. But he’s not able to express himself in a way that is what we would consider normal. At the end of the day, he’s going to express himself and you might not be able to receive it just as much as he can’t receive you talking to him. That’s one bit of awareness people should know.
Featuring this in the magazine, what is the best way to share this story?
In my mind when I think about sharing his story, one general understanding is the fact that I think differently. The things that you typically can do (ie. you can read your book, sit down, and have a conversation with your family) for me – talking as my son – I can’t do that. I sense things in a different way. I communicate in an extremely different way than what you would consider a typical child does. That is what I think about his story, his message. It is an “I am different. It’s okay. It’s fine for me to be me” story. When you look at me you might think I am just a normal 9-year-old boy, but I’m not. Though I expect the same type of support you would give other people with a disability, don’t look at me differently just because I’m functioning at a different level
What does a successful or good day look like?
Right now, waking up and being able to get through his Zoom classes in this current environment. Because of his disability and his needs, he can’t just sit in a Zoom going through cycles of learning. Typically, in third grade, you’re starting to really dive into multiplication and things of that nature. However, he’s just trying to learn life skills to become independent like being able to wake up; communicating that I have an iPad that I speak from–I need to get that iPad: being able to let people know hey, this is what I need at this moment as I work.
Can you explain a bit more about the iPad?
Sure. He has an app that gives him different buttons he can select. For instance, he will say, “Can I please have Wendy’s?” or “I need to use the restroom.” Just because he doesn’t vocalize doesn’t mean he can’t communicate, and that’s how he communicates his needs to you.
So he just can’t put it into words?
In my son’s mind, he tries to verbalize but he won’t verbalize words. You’ll get the “mom, mom, mom, dad” and get really excited because it’s like “Yeah! He’s getting it!” but he won’t say words. He won’t put together a sentence, but he can put together a sentence on his talker (iPad).
So he can understand and communicate just not verbally?
Yes, but don’t think you can just sit there and talk about him and not get anything back. For my child, I can’t speak for other people who are on the spectrum, but for my child, he understands everything you’re saying in the moment. He might not articulate the way my other son can, my four years old who will give you the whole business. My nine year old, if he uses that talker (iPad) can talk to you and he’s learning how to do more simple phrases.
How would you phrase his communication with others?
I’m going to give you the clinical description of it and then I’m going to explain a little more: he is on the Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 3, which is the severe side of autism. For him, he understands and he’ll look at you, and he’ll hear you but there is a delay. He also has an intellectual disability. You can give him a one-step direction like, “Can you pick up this?” or “Put the water in the sink.” He will understand that very, very clearly. But if you give him more than those simple step directions he will either 1) not get it or 2), he’ll do steps, but because he’s not finished with them he will get frustrated. That’s where my wife and I sense his meltdowns. His meltdown is not a “Dang it, I can’t do this!” It’s an “I want to communicate with you, I don’t have the words to say it, and I’m frustrated.” It’s a stumbling block but we always find ways and opportunities to love on him.
So he gets frustrated because he wants to communicate, but because he can’t he uses his emotions.
You get frustrated about something but you cannot express yourself, man… Even now if I can’t express my frustration about something, I don’t know what people would think about me. But thinking about when he’s happy and wanting to play around, the only way you know is when he has a smile on his face. It’s electric. His emotions dictate how happy he is, so that’s his communication style
What does he enjoy doing in his spare time?
He could live outside if he wanted to! He enjoys being outside. He’ll be on the rope swing we have on our tree. Or, if it’s during summer, he’ll play with the water hose. He’ll even get his iPad sometimes and request “I want to watch Thomas the Train” or whatever other kid show he wants to see. If we go on a walk or a slide on the playground, he’ll have fun.
Will you have to help him for the rest of his life?
Right now, that’s what me and my wife are working on is being able for him to get up, get his own food, brush his teeth, making sure he functions in a way that he can be independent. That’s the goal. That’s what we work on every single day. That’s what his teachers work on every single day, making sure he gets those life skills to be independent. My outlook is whatever I’ve got to do to get them there, I have to make sure my son is independent. He will always have the love of his parents and his brother. That’s it. I want him to be able to function like being able to walk down the street without any worries.
How do you assess his mental health?
He can’t communicate it besides on the talker (iPad) We ask, “How are you feeling?” He’ll say with his iPad, “I feel happy. I feel sad. I am frustrated.”
What is the process from a parent’s perspective? How do you help him through when it comes to you maybe not knowing what he’s going through?
For me, it’s like a checklist. To give you an example: let’s say he gets frustrated. I have to go through a mental checklist to see what’s happening with him. One: did he get enough sleep? Two: has he eaten? Three: does he need to use the bathroom? It is to a point where my wife and I have to go through certain things before we can say okay those things are taken care of. Now there’s maybe we gave him too much direction or maybe someone said something to him, let’s figure out what’s going on. It depends on the timing and where he’s at which can take all of five minutes or an hour. It’s up to him
What does interaction look like between your two boys?
My youngest is a typical functioning kid. He will go over his old brother and ask him how he’s doing, he’ll tell him about his day, what he did in school, and get really excited. He’s four and has started to realize “Okay, my big brother doesn’t communicate the way I communicate. And that part makes me sad.” That’s a hard thing for him to feel like, to say his big brother doesn’t want to play with me. So, for him, it’s a reality he’s facing right now. He’s starting to understand when me and my wife have conversations with him and say, you know, your brother thinks differently, but we still love him. He’s like, “oh, of course, I love him!”. That’s all I need. You continue to love your brother, and as a brother of course you’re going to get frustrated. I can see any sibling get frustrated with their siblings because that’s what they do when they’re raised together. But for him, he’s learning how to communicate his feelings through his older brother. He can communicate “I feel frustrated.” I’ve never seen a four-year-old ever communicate that. I know I didn’t when I was four. Like “why are you sad?” It’s because he can’t talk, and I want to talk with him in person. It kind of breaks your heart. He’s learning so much from the situation and from experiences with his bigger brother. Just becoming the best human being for him. I know I won’t be around forever. When he gets older I know he’ll be able to support his big brother.