Updated: August 15, 2014 6:10AM
Brandon Carter didn’t hesitate to follow his “Uncle Mose” into the noisy, distraction-filled Universal Fitness gym in Merrillville.
This surprised me a bit because many kids with autism are skittish of such sensory-overloaded environments, with pounding music, loud fans and other gym members pumping iron.
The 15-year-old Merrillville boy has a sweet smile, a gentle handshake and an obvious fondness for Mose Carter, though they’re not related.
Mose is a mountain of a man who’s been lifting weights since age 12 and training others professionally for 20 years. His handshake swallows yours. His smile is sincere. And his heart is as big as his bulging biceps, especially for Brandon.
“OK, are you ready?” Mose asked Brandon, who silently settled into a weightlifting machine. “Here we go. All the way down, all the way up. That’s good, that’s right, now give me the power. Come on now, last one, last one.”
Brandon’s parents take him here every Monday to work out under Mose’s gentle yet firm supervision. They wait by the front desk as Brandon pumps iron with several machines, free weights and other techniques.
“We’ve learned that these deep-pressure stimulation workouts make him more calm,” said Brandon’s mother, Tracy. “He tends to be overly stimulated at times.”
“He can’t wait to come here,” said Brandon’s father, Virgil, who works at ArcelorMittal at Indiana Harbor.
“He gets sad or restless when he doesn’t exercise,” said Tracy, a stay-at-home mother.
“He’ll say, ‘Uncle Mose, Uncle Mose,’ and we know he’s missing his time here,” Virgil added.
In between sets, Mose noted, “I try to do anything that stimulates his mind, stimulates his body and stimulates his motor skills.”
At that moment, Brandon’s smile was stimulated as he looked up to Mose with admiration.
“Plus, it really helps with his socialization skills to come here, just being out with other people, and also to engage in different conversations,” Mose said before getting back to Brandon’s 20-minute training session.
After Brandon leaves Universal Fitness, his mother takes him to Broadway Music in Merrillville to play the piano. He has always had a fascination with the piano at his church. One day, his parents allowed him to play it. Something special happened.
“He first learned how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and he now plays Bach, Beethoven, you name it,” his mother said.
“He has a special talent for the piano,” his father said. “He finds it calming.”
The couple are convinced that children diagnosed on the autism spectrum should be given every possible outlet to showcase their talents, whatever those may be. They also believe that too many parents are either confused or fearful to do so, instead opting to keep their autistic child in a protective bubble.
“I think it is important for parents to know about different things to try with their children with autism,” Tracy said. “Brandon has taken gymnastics, track with Special Olympics, and baseball with Challengers Baseball.”
As you probably know, the number of children who fall under the catch-all diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder has skyrocketed in recent years. Roughly 1 in 68 children now fall under that umbrella condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This new estimate is about 30 percent higher than previous estimates reported just two years ago of 1 in 88 children. The new data continue to show that ASD is still five times more common among boys than girls, and white kids are more likely to be identified as having ASD than are black or Hispanic ones.
My point: There are more kids and parents dealing with this mysterious disorder, whatever the cause. And too many parents don’t know how to deal with it.
“I tell other parents to at least give your child a chance,” Tracy said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you at least gave it a try.
“If we had never given our son a chance to go to the gym and exercise, or take piano lessons for the past two years, we would not know he could do these things,” she said.
Brandon, who now gets high-fives from other gym members, struggled as a young boy to learn fundamental things, such as left vs. right, or identifying colors and letters.
“Just simple stuff,” his mother explained.
He was born with hearing problems and diagnosed with other health issues before finally being diagnosed with ASD at age 6.
“I knew in my heart that this was the correct diagnosis,” said Tracy, who’s been homeschooling Brandon since kindergarten.
“I just didn‘t like what I was seeing at school, involving inclusion of special-needs students,” she said. “We prayed about it and believed this was best for him.”
It hasn’t been easy. Not at all. There have been tears, frustration and debilitating stress.
“I cried myself to sleep on some nights,” Tracy said. “But we’ve come a long way.”
Brandon now goes to several therapies each week, including a social-skills group at Innovations In Learning in Merrillville, and speech and occupational therapy at Wee Care Therapy in Dyer. He also plays piano for youth revivals at his church as well as on Sunday mornings, when asked.
However, his time is special with his Uncle Mose, who attended Lew Wallace High School with Brandon’s parents.
“There are not a lot of people in this world who would do that for Brandon, or even care to help,” Tracy said.
Mose says he is the one who is blessed by Brandon’s visits.
“It’s really been good for me,” he said. “I’m thankful that Virgil and Tracy have put their trust in me. Other parents can be fearful of such things, but they shouldn’t. They need to know that they are not alone.”
Watch Brandon and Mose
in action. Check out my video at posttrib.suntimes.com/news