Oliver’s journey: Oliver Muzio shares his story of dealing with autism
Recently, National Public Radio ran a series on parents of autistic children. In this series, families described how they felt upon hearing the diagnosis of autism for their child and subsequent life adjustment. But we don’t have to go to national media or a bookstore to witness, understand, and support children with autism and their families. We can do that here, in our community, in Grass Valley.
For two weekends in January, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” was performed on the Bear River Community Theater stage. While Oliver Muzio, a junior Bruin, took his bows for his role as the lead, his parents, family, friends, and teachers had tears in their eyes.
“As I watched him up there, I thought to myself that if people only realized this student’s background and his life struggles, they would be amazed at how he has transformed through the power of the theater experience,” director Amy Linden said.
When asked how he would feel about sharing his story, Muzio responded that he would be honored.
“I feel like the more people who know, the better,” he said. “These are common things, autism and OCD and the other things. The more people know people with these disorders, they will realize it’s pretty common and maybe they can notice it and deal with it more appropriately. People like me will be more welcome in social environments because people will understand us and we will fit in.”
According to his mom, Lauretta Muzio, Oliver had delayed speech as a preschooler, not putting words together until just after 3 years of age. He would get overwhelmed in social situations and shut down. At his preschool while all the other children partook in holiday parties, he would curl up by himself in the book nook.
Life became harder for Oliver as he got to the middle of elementary school. Kids were less accepting of someone “different,” and Oliver had a difficult time with that. He became more and more reclusive and had a true need of controlling the world around him. He became stubborn and grumpy and not much fun to be around.
It was in third grade that Oliver was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and autism, which often go together. He was also diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder which affects his fine motor skills, OCD, Emotional Disorder, and Executive Functioning Disorder.
This began a journey with many support staff for him, from doctors to neurologists, the school psychiatrist to a psychotherapist, and special education programs through Pleasant Ridge School District and Bear River High School. Oliver joined band in fourth grade and 4H, and he began volunteering as a kitten foster for AnimalSave. All these pieces came together and offered Oliver the support, tools and opportunities he needed to feel good about himself.
High school can be a challenging adjustment for many students, and Oliver struggled to find his footing. He had remained in band throughout middle school and was becoming quite a percussionist, so band was a welcoming place at school for him. But, he felt out of place socially, and his family was worried about his happiness and self-esteem. Nanci Smith, Education Specialist at Bear River, started working with Oliver as a freshman as his case manager for special education.
Oliver’s older sister was involved with Bear River Dramatics at the time and had found a warm, supportive environment there. She suggested he get involved with the next year’s musical. It took a lot of convincing since one of Oliver struggles with memory. Day-to-day scheduling, rote memorization and even the ability to complete more than one task at a time often escape him. As luck would have it, the fall musical was “Little Shop of Horrors,” and a puppeteer with no lines was needed. There is nothing in life Oliver loves more than levers and mechanics, so he gladly accepted the role of Audrey III and IV.
Oliver found such reward in playing Audrey that he decided he would audition for the spring play, “Scheherazade.” Students read for all the parts, trying different voices and different pairings with other students — and Oliver was cast as one of the lead parts, the villain, Nefario. This year, Oliver again auditioned for the fall musical, and secured the part of the blockhead, Charlie Brown.
While many of his peers and adults who know Oliver were moved by the transformation they had witnessed, he seemed to take it in stride.
“I just feel like it is a part of me and it’s just my life,” he said about autism. “It doesn’t matter if I have something or not. I am just me. It makes me who I am. I don’t know any other way to be me.”
However, he had more to add when asked how drama and the arts had impacted him.
“It has opened me up to new friends and shown me how to express emotions,” he said. “I feel good; it makes me feel accomplished to be on the stage. It gives me great satisfaction to know I have done something that others are afraid or unwilling to do, and I do it well.”
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