Love is all you need

A little lost boy and his family


Photo by Allyson Smith

Autism is defined as a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.

Story by Katey Pappas, staff writer

Autism is defined as a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. Symptoms can vary widely, and common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors. It is considered a common disorder, with more than 200,000 cases per year.

Words can’t begin to summarize the effects of autism on a person and their family. Many people think they understand the disorder from watching shows like “The Good Doctor.” However, autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that cases can range from mild to severe. Because of this, these types of shows don’t even begin to give anyone a glimpse into the real life of a severely autistic individual. 

Higher-functioning autistic patients tend to dominate the media, and this unfortunately lessens how serious more severe autism can be, and how it affects society. Many people watching these TV shows tend to think it’s not a big deal.”

— Paul Pappas

People with severe autism tend to go unnoticed. Those with a mild or moderate case generally tend to be seen more and have more books and success stories written about them. Many of these stories make it seem like autism is no big deal and just makes you awkward, but that is far from the truth. One of these individuals lives in this very town.

Petey was born in 1996 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a happy baby. He was calm and didn’t fuss much at all. However, soon after he was born, his mom noticed something was off. He started to cry a lot, much more than he had before. His parents didn’t begin to suspect things were seriously wrong until Petey was almost 3 years old. His speech was regressing, and he was always loud and would get very upset for no apparent reason.

“He slowly began to stop saying the simple words that he previously knew how to say,” Petey’s mother, Lila Pappas said.

Being first-time parents and the disorder’s awareness not being prevalent in the 1990s, his parents did not know to look for the signs. Well-meaning people told them his irritability and speech delay came from being spoiled and needing physical punishment, teething, ear infections and other issues. 

In retrospect, he did show signs of it from the very beginning. Even from the first day he came home from the hospital, he would cry and scream about 18 hours a day. He wouldn’t sleep either. At a few months old, he would avoid people’s gaze and look down instead of making eye contact. He would go through periods where he would seem very normal. Then, he would go through phases of being more irritable, avoiding eye contact and not sleeping. Eventually, he was diagnosed with autism. 

In 2000, the family moved back to Texarkana to be closer to loved ones and get help caring for Petey after being evaluated for autism. Petey began attending preschool at a church in Wake Village. When his parents were working, he spent time with his grandparents. He had an excellent relationship with each of them, especially his grandpa, and he still does to this day. In 2003, Petey’s little brother Nickey was born. Petey was not happy. He would scream as loud as he could for hours, cry loudly and drive his parents crazy. 

He cried for three days. He didn’t sleep for those nights, and he kept wanting us to shut Nickey in his room. Every time I picked up Nickey, he wanted me to put him in the crib and shut the door. Finally, after those three days, he was crying and just screaming. I didn’t know what to do except pick him up and hold him as tight as I could. After a while, he quieted down. He was OK after that.”

— Lila Pappas


By the time his little sister was born in 2004, however, Petey was used to babies and did not mind having another in the house as much. His little brother and sister were so normal that their parents thought something was wrong with them, but something that bothered Petey was the noise. The average infant crying from his siblings was almost too much for him to bear. The wailing caused him to scream and nearly drove his parents up the wall. In the end, though, his family got through it by never running out of patience. 

In 2001, Petey began attending Wake Village Elementary school, which had the main program for autistic children. He had an excellent experience here with a fantastic teacher and staff. He then moved on to Texas Middle School. 

In both schools, Petey learned how to do things the best he could. The typical work for him was crafts, simple assignments and other ordinary things for special needs students. Being nonverbal, Petey never made friends in school. His experience was not like the average student’s, but his family tried to make the situation as good as possible. 

After finishing middle school, he switched to the Pleasant Grove school system. The school was smaller, and his parents felt this environment might be better for him due to the smaller classes and lack of crowds. Petey enjoyed this school and loved all of his teachers. He got to do tons of fun stuff. He learned how to sweep, fold towels and other life skills to help him function independently. He learned how to do puzzles, look at patterns and participated in PE. 

He loved his PE coach. The coach taught him how to high five and fistbump, which he enjoys doing after accomplishing something.  Every week, he and his teachers would go to the Runnin WJ Ranch and ride horses. This was his favorite activity until his graduation in May of 2019. He also received additional occupational and speech therapy from age four at the local Easter Seals. The patient and loving therapist and staff helped him tremendously. 

The disability makes things hard for the family. It is a big challenge to do simple things like have a family dinner, go on vacation, ride in the car or go to the store. Petey’s parents do have to devote much of their time to his care, but they would never dream of putting him in another home or assisted living facility. His siblings always worry about what will happen to them when their parents are gone. One thing that helps them cope is by remembering how much their brother loves them, and how he would never act the way he does if he could have a choice. 

“Life with a severely autistic person is very difficult at times, as they require a lot of care and attention,” Petey’s brother, Nickey Pappas, said. 

Petey may not be able to speak or care for himself, but he is still a human. It may be challenging, but they will try to give Petey the most full and well-rounded life that they can because they love him. The family knows that love is all that matters, and it will always hold them together.