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Autistic South Fayette High School senior overcomes life challenges

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Diagnosed with autism in 1999, Joey Blum did not utter a word in the first four years of his life. Here, he was waxing eloquently at South Fayette High School on World Autism Day.

Joey Blum is excited to graduate from South Fayette High School in May – he is looking forward to college, marriage and starting a family.

It's something his mother, Maria Blum, never thought he would do.

On April 2, Blum, 18, stood in front of the district's middle school auditorium and spoke to friends, family and teachers.

It's something else his mother never thought he would do.

He was diagnosed with autism in 1999, when he was 4. For the first four years of his life, he did not speak.

“To see the progress – it's incredible,” Maria Blum said. “I'm looking at my son, who we thought would not be able to speak, and he's so comfortable there speaking.”

For the second straight year, Joey gave a presentation on World Autism Day to raise awareness about the condition.

“I was to describe how being different can be a good thing,” said Blum, who also said he is never late.

His presentation touched on the challenges that autistic children can face growing up, and he spoke about his own struggles in high school. He and his family moved to South Fayette in 2011 from Houston, Texas.

“Sometimes, I misunderstand peoples' attempts to joke with me, and I see it as teasing and I get mad,” he said. “I have a hard time forgiving people because I don't know if they're really sorry or trying to trick me.”

He is a member of several school organizations, including Circle of Friends, the Young Leaders Academy, the annual Down syndrome walk and others.

He began giving the presentation last year on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day. April is Autism Awareness Month.

School psychologist Conchetta Bell, who has worked with Blum since he came to the district, encouraged him to speak about his autism, he said, but it was personal as well.

“I want to express the challenges and difficulties that I face,” he said.

Children with autism often face language, learning and social barriers, and the degrees to which individuals are affected depend on where they fall on the autism spectrum. Some make so much progress that they no longer meet the criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Others are unable to communicate.

After he graduates, Blum said he hopes to go to school to become a scientist. He loves dinosaurs — his favorite is the Tyrannosaurus rex — but he is unsure what type of scientist he would like to become.

He said he's not sure if he will continue to give autism awareness presentations in college.

His mother, who also speaks at his presentations, said she hopes people can look to her son for inspiration.

“It's just amazing. When you get that diagnosis, you feel like it's the end of the world,” she said. “I hope people look at Joey and just think: ‘hope.'

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5810 or

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