WOONSOCKET — Bullied at school, erroneously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a correspondingly wrongheaded cocktail of prescription drugs, Adam Brunetti arrived at a harrowing crossroads by the time he was in the sixth grade at Woonsocket Middle School in 2006.
No wonder he doesn’t remember much of it.
“I pretty much blacked the whole thing out,” he says matter-of-factly.
The good news is that, today, Brunetti is an 18-year-old video arts student at New England Tech, and he doesn’t want to miss a thing anymore. And he wants others who suffer from Asperger’s — the true cause of his childhood woes — to be able to look forward to rewarding lives as well.
That’s why Brunetti has become a budding advocate for those who suffer from Asperger’s and other forms of autism. Last year, Brunetti was a key organizer of the first annual benefit for the Autism Project of Rhode Island at Woonsocket High School, and he’s poised to do it again next month, making the show bigger and glitzier than ever by featuring magician Garry Carson, a Las Vegas headliner.
Last year, Brunetti’s benefit variety show raised $10,000 that was used to provide special training about Asperger’s and related disorders to teachers in the Woonsocket Education Department.
Nobody knows how important that is more than Brunetti’s mother, Linda Brunetti. She says the public schools are apt to let special needs children like her son remain pigeonholed with an incorrect diagnosis than push for extra medical screenings that could translate into added costs for their special education departments.
“You have to advocate for your own kid because if you don’t, no one else will,” she says.
As a small child, Linda Brunetti says, Adam always suffered from an amalgam of physical maladies, including hearing problems and severe respiratory infections that sometimes turned into pneumonia. When he grew old enough to talk, it was apparent he couldn’t form words as proficiently as children his age, but he was a much better reader than most of his peers.
“He kind of stuck out,” she says. “He was reading stories in kindergarten when other kids were just learning to read their names.”
Brunetti said she always figured Adam would outgrow the physical problems, and to a large extent, he did. But as early as the third grade, a time when children are usually deep into the ABC’s of mingling with peers, Adam still displayed a distinct preference for playing all by himself.
The solitary tendencies and introverted behavior are telltale signs of Asperger’s, a form of autism which can afflict children with varying degrees of severity. No one knows the cause or why the condition strikes with such a dizzying range of symptoms, but some autistic children are completely incapable of speech and become extremely agitated by social interaction.
Despite the outward signs of autism, Adam was initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition marked by wide mood swings, from despressing lows to manic bursts of wild energy and, sometimes, hallucinatory spells of schizophrenia.
Linda never really bought into the bipolar diagnosis, and she spent years with her nose in books or pressed on computer screens in the hunt for a better explanation. But it wasn’t until her son reached middle school that the picture started to sharpen.
UNNECESSARILY MEDICATED with a drug that studies say can cause suicidal thoughts, Adam entered the sixth grade uniquely vulnerable to the cruelties that teenagers can inflict on someone they see as a little different. He landed in Butler Hospital.
It was a turning point for Adam, who encountered a doctor there named Roland Barrett who immediately recognized that he wasn’t suffering from bipolar disorder at all, but Asperger’s.
Despite the increasingly common diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome since the term became popular in the 1990s, some people are still unfamiliar with it. But anyone who’s ever seen the movie “Rainman” may know more than they realize. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays a character who is entirely dysfunctional socially, though he possesses an extraordinary talent for just one thing – mathematics.
Such Asperger’s sufferers are sometimes called, in a rather unflattering way, to be sure, “idiot savants.” Some can play a song perfectly on the piano after hearing it just once, though they’ve never taken a lesson in their lives. Another can recite the Bill of Rights after hearing it read the first time. Yet another knows which day of the week fell on Dec. 3, 1932
Experts say “aspies,” as some sufferers now proudly call themselves, all share prodigious memory skills, to some extent, but relatively few are on the scale of Rainman, and Brunetti certainly doesn’t see himself on the same level. But he’s still a pretty smart kid with some highly specialized, creative obsessions.
“I have about 6,000 Legos pieces in my room,” he says. But it’s not enough for him just to build things out of them, like ordinary kids.
He uses Lego models as the basis for creating stop-motion animation films. In other words, he’s using a series of 3D models and photographing each one to suggest the figure is actually moving, much the way Walt Disney’s artists would draw thousands of pictures of Mickey Mouse to make it appear as if the cartoon figure was a living, breathing creature.
When he was a freshman in high school, Adam wrote an 89-page work of fiction called “Dream Wars” that he says was inspired by his own onslaught of dreams at the time. In the book, the lead character finds he is sleep-dreaming of a world where “mythical creatures” wage war on humans, a premise that turns thrilling when the dreamer gets sucked into the dream, and the dream becomes reality.
Though he never returned to the public middle school after that fateful year in 2006, Adam made a smooth transition back to Woonsocket High School, where he became active in music and theater programs. Not long ago, he met Mayor Leo T. Fontaine when they both had roles in a WHS production of the Broadway musical, “Grease.” He also played the trombone in high school and says he’d buy one if he could afford it.
“I’ve talked to him and his family and I’ve discovered how his involvement in music and the drama club have really helped him progress pretty dramatically,” says Fontaine. “He’s become a very personable, very outgoing individual who just wants to do things to make things better for people.”
With Brunetti as a key organizer, the second annual benefit for the Rhode Island Autism Project will take place at WHS on March 7. It’s been dubbed the “Magical Mystery Show. ” Magician Carson, one of the top-rated family acts in Las Vegas, has agreed to do the show for free, though Brunetti is still trying to round up individual and corporate sponsorships to defray the performer’s travel and lodging.
Tickets are $10, though anyone interested can obtain more information at 309-5029, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
As for the future beyond the show, Brunetti has high hopes for a career in the video and film arts.
Indeed, Brunetti has come to the point where, in just a few short years, he no longer sees Asperger’s as an anchor, but a lifejacket.
“I’m proud to say I’m autistic,” he says. “It’s part of who I am. I’m not going to let it get me down. I’d rather put what I have to good use.”