WILLIAMS - Laura Nagle didn't know she was autistic until she was almost 56-years-old.
Nagle, a resident of Williams, said she may have been diagnosed autistic at an early age but has no specific memories of the event. When she happened onto a television program on Asperger's, Syndrome, she began to identify with many of the characteristics associated with the condition.
Her sister mentioned Nagles's suspicion that she might be autistic to their father.
"He said 'Oh yeah, she was diagnosed with autism in the fourth grade and she was nearly put into an institution.' I had no idea," Nagle said. "Now, does that mean no one told me? Possibly. But, on the other hand, those of us with autism can live in our own little worlds."
Once diagnosed, Nagle said much about her life and who she is began to come into focus. She prefers not to characterize her condition as a disease, disorder or a psychological issue.
"I don't like symptoms," she said. "That's too pejorative. I'd rather call them characteristics. I think we're a different sort of person."
Nagle is currently president of the Northern Arizona Chapter of the Autism Society of America (NAASA). According to Nagle, the chapter was founded approximately five years ago. She said the chapter functions as a source of information on autism as well as a support system for those with autism or for parents of autistic children.
"You come to one of our meetings, you meet other parents, you meet people and you share stories. You get bucked up. It's very important," she said. "We have a lot of people who make phone calls and contact us on the Internet from outlying areas. They get information like how to set up an Individual Education Program for a child. Is there a good child psychologist who knows what autism is?"
According to the Autism Society Web site, asperger's syndrome differs from autism in the severity of the symptoms. Children with asperger's may be only mildly affected and will frequently demonstrate good language and cognitive skills.
Nagle said autism is autism.
"Looking at my life, you can't be mildly autistic any more than you can be mildly pregnant," Nagle said. "If you're autistic that determines who you are."
Growing up, Nagle said she had trouble in school although she had an aptitude for numbers. She learned general drafting principles along with engineering drafting and architectural drafting. After completing a little over two years of college she dropped out due to financial issues.
After losing her job at a bike store in Williams, Nagle decided to put her math and drafting abilities to the test. Although not a licensed architect, she has been able to garner design work in the area.
"There are as many forms of autism as there are people and some of us have really huge problems," she said. "My problems have been large because if you don't have the social skills you may not be able to use what you're good at. I should have stayed in school. I have an aptitude for physics. I'm not doing that. But, at least I use my spatial and applied math abilities and design buildings. It could be worse."
Despite her social inhibitions, Nagle currently speaks on living with autism around the state. She said understanding her autism allows her to have a full understanding of herself and hopes others with the syndrome can do the same.
"Some of the beauty of now knowing who I am is that I can own not only the negatives, but I can now own my positives, too, and start working around the negatives. I have found that I have an ability to tell people something of the inside view of autism. I've found this to be the most fulfilling thing in my life."
Dr. Susan Marks, associate professor at Northern Arizona University and Board Certified Behavior Analyst, met Nagle while she was a NAASA board member. She invited Nagle to speak at an autism training session for teachers in Sedona.
"What she is able to do is talk about what school was like for her and then explain some of the things that happened in school that if the teachers had understood that they might have been able to address it in a different way," Marks said.
Marks said Nagle has gone on to speak at a variety of events and conferences, making an impact in ways those without autism cannot.
"Parents are just so taken by what she has to say because she puts into words what sometimes children with autism are not able to," Marks said. "I think that's what has been powerful is that the parents start being able to understand or interpret what their child might be trying to tell them because Laura has the benefit of now having grown up and being able to share what that might have been like for her."