Friday, March 18, 2011

Luke Nutini is like everyone else.

Light years away, where no human has gone, there is a planet called Seria, filled with Dinosaur-like creatures and epic heroes, Seria is a place for adventure. On any given night a boy reaches deep into his imagination and transports himself to a world void of alienation and social stigma. That boy is Luke Nutini.

Luke Nutini is an 18 year old senior at Naperville High School. He is less than 6 feet tall and has a calming presence. Like many great authors and artists he is very quiet and very shy.  Luke is autistic, but that is only one dimension of him. Luke’s two older sisters, Jessica and Katrina Nutini, inspire and are inspired by Luke’s willpower and continue to help him on his path to independence.

Luke faces social stigmas because of his mental health issue. Combined with the obstacles Luke already faces for being autistic one would think Luke’s pride, motivation, and confidence would be diminished. This is not the case. Luke is like any boy his age, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, liking bands like Linkin Park and he can eat a double bacon cheeseburger as fast as any other pubescent boy.

From a family of five, Luke is the youngest and is often assisted by Katrina, his closest sister in age and relationship. Katrina describes her brother, “Luke is very quick witted and intelligent. He uses a very large vocabulary and can talk circles around most people.” Katrina is a veterinarian assistant and studies Special Ed education at Elmhurst College. Katrina is a little shorter than Luke and she is as energetic as he is tranquil. She and Luke both are currently living at home in Naperville with their parents.

Another big supporter in Luke’s life is his older sister, Jessica Nutini. Jessica has been teaching Special Ed at Independence Elementary School in Boilingbrook for five years. Jessica and Luke share a similar serene demeanor, and because of her experience with mental health issues Jessica is very knowledgeable and helpful.  Watching and helping Luke grow up put Jessica on the path to teaching. She says “Luke had a lot of great teachers growing up and he had some that were not so great. It inspired me to do it. I didn’t want kids to have experiences that he had that were bad.”

Luke is like any other boy his age, yet he faces many more obstacles. One thing that hovers over Luke is the social stigma that comes with being autistic.  Some of Luke’s peers are unable to grasp what it means to be autistic. This makes Luke distraught, and like anyone who is confused and angry he can lash out. Luckily, Katrina is there to offer advice. A recent incident forced Luke to charge out of his high school classroom. When Luke asked Katrina if he was in trouble Katrina replied, “Well if you are called down to the principal’s office make sure to be respectful and if you are in trouble it’s important that you don’t get upset.”

Katrina and Jessica help Luke as he helps them. Jessica says, “Taking care of Luke has definitely helped me with my job. I would not know as much about Special Ed if I didn’t have a brother with a disability. I have been able to use that to help out my kids.” Luke has also sparked Katrina’s interest on autism, “I do a lot of research. When I research I try to find the best strategies to help children with autism learn. I try to figure out the best ways to help them reach their potential.”

Though Jessica lives fairly close to Luke and Katrina, it is Katrina that tends to Luke the most. This has created a strong relationship between the two. Yet, like any brother and sister they also have their dissonant moments. Sometimes Luke’s actions or emotions can be misinterpreted. Katrina understands that the autistic and their caregivers are often faced with obstacles even during their day-to-day routine. Katrina often remedies this dissonance, “You just have to explain to them differently and you realize that they have just developed differently and may need to be taught things for a longer amount of time.” Jessica also has good advice that she often tells the parents of her students when they are dealing with an unruly child, “Take it one day at a time. Just breathe, relax and be really patient. It does get better.”

With the recent scandal of Andrew Wakefield (the man who committed “elaborate fraud” while looking for a cure for autism) autistic disorders have been put in the spotlight. This has posed an ethically trying hypothetical question to all autistic caregivers: if there was a cure would you use it? Luke would not take the cure.  Katrina describes Luke’s reasoning the best, “He said no, that he liked who he was, he just wished that there were people that understood him.” Luke’s response is eye-opening. Being autistic is a part of who he is. It’s a way that he defines himself.

Luke’s autism has inspired his two siblings. Both of them owe their purpose in life to him. Jessica and Katrina feel a powerful feeling of satisfaction when they help people with mental health disabilities. “You see the light bulb go off,” Jessica says when she describes her work with her students.  Katrina puts it “When you have lived with someone with a disability you develop a new mindset.” Both of them have taken their life experiences and have used them as a catalyst for their careers.

Luke will be graduating this spring, and plans on looking for enrollment at a transitional school. Katrina has another year to finish up her Special Ed degree and Jessica has aspirations for getting her Master’s Degree in Reading.  Katrina and Jessica will go on in life inspiring and helping people just like Luke. Luke will continue to write and explore the dimensions of himself and his imagination. The future looks bright for these three siblings.

-Matt Harriett-

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