Burnaby teen David Roy is, in many ways, a model student.
The 16-year-old gets good grades, loves social studies and sports, and is never late for class.
"Unlike most teens, I'm very responsible," he says. "I always come to school on time, while a lot of the time other people are either late or skipping."
Not that life for David and his family has always been so orderly.
Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at age four, David struggled with behavioural and learning challenges throughout his childhood. He had difficulty controlling his emotions and relating to his peers at school.
He was a happy child but preferred playing on his own to interacting with other kids when he started preschool, and his parents noticed that, unlike his older brother, he was not as communicative or interested in making eye contact at that age.
ASD, also known simply as autism, is a neurological disorder characterized by impaired social and communication skills and unusual interests or behaviour, but it can manifest itself in a variety of ways.
"I've heard people say, 'If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism,'" says David's mother, Susan Roy.
Being highly self-aware, David is eager to help others understand what it means to have autism.
"It's a main issue these days because more people are being diagnosed with it," he noted.
The Canadian Autism Society references the U.S. Centre for Disease Control to show how many children are affected - about one in 88, up from one in 150 a decade ago - to offer a comparable estimate of the numbers in Canada.
Here in Burnaby, David is actively involved with programming at Monarch House - a private assessment, diagnosis and treatment centre. As part of Autism Awareness Month, he was part of a panel discussion for the public to learn from teens with autism what it's like to live with the disorder.
"I like to talk to people, and I like answering questions," he says.
For many people with ASD, it can be extremely difficult to break established routines or try new things.
When he was very young, David would eat only plain pasta, says Roy, but over time, he has discovered things like travelling and exotic foods can be exciting, rather than overwhelming.
For spring break this year, he went with the Burnaby school district on a field trip to South Korea and to Japan where he climbed Mt. Fuji, explored the Tokyo shopping district and even ate eel.
Roy was amazed by his enthusiasm for the experience.
"He's done more than we'd ever expected him to do," she said.
"So it's sort of an open book. There are lots of opportunities for him and we're surprised all the time."
One of the major reasons for his progress, Roy says, is the support the family has received from Monarch House, as well as the community support received through David's school and network of extended family and friends.
When he was younger, he also worked with a behaviour interventionist, got sup-port through the Canucks Autism Network, and found friends through that organization as well.
While the cause or causes are still unknown, an autism diagnosis is not something that parents should feel will forever restrict what their child can do, Roy says.
"I think for parents who have a child who's diagnosed, I'd want to just be able to tell them to try to just be open and not to think about the future," she says.
"You're not going to know what the future's like. You'll be surprised in many ways by how much growth and change there is along the way."
For David, he says his future plans include college and more travel abroad.
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