Townsend named outstanding Coweta Special Olympian
By REBECCA LEFTWICH
Michael Townsend has earned piles of first-place ribbons and medals from Special Olympics competitions over the years, but it’s his third place finish at this year’s spring games that was truly memorable.
“He was way out in front of the other runners,” said Angela Townsend, Michael’s mom. “All of the sudden, he stopped a few feet from the finish line and just started waving and bowing and blowing kisses to the crowd,” said Angela Townsend, Michael’s mom. “I was going, ‘What are you doing? You haven’t won yet!’ It was such a Michael thing to do.”
“He has matured into an amazing young man since he entered high school,” said Jim McGraw, who presented the award to Michael during the Coweta County Special Olympics spring track and field event at East Coweta’s Shoemake Stadium.
Unaware her son was going to receive the award, Angela Townsend was parking her car during the presentation. But she didn’t have to see Michael’s recognition ceremony – for which the family says they are “very grateful” and “truly appreciate” – to know it was a true indicator of what her son has overcome.
Born three years after his sister Aris, Michael developed normally until he was about 18 months old. Michael II’s infanthood was a relief to Angela and her husband, Michael, because they had spent Aris’ first months battling to keep her alive after she was born more than four months prematurely.
Immediately after a routine measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, Angela says, Michael II “acted like someone had clicked a light switch.”
“He withdrew into himself,” Angela said. “He went from really verbal and outgoing, happy-go-lucky, to throwing tantrums, staying up all night and grunting when he wanted something.”
When Michael started rocking, Angela, who grew up with a mildly retarded brother and has a background in developmental disabilities, recognized self-stim behavior and took him to the doctor.
After many months and a battery of tests checking for everything from deafness to mongolism, Michael II eventually was diagnosed with autism.
“The doctor said, ‘He will never say he loves you or even make eye contact,’ and I just broke down,” Angela said.
She didn’t stay down for long before the family decided they would not accept that doctor’s prognosis. They began working with Michael II and refused to believe he was incapable of a full and happy life. Angela became his champion, using her youthful experiences to make informed decisions about whether to medicate him – they don’t – and choosing to look for the Michael that had become hidden behind a wall of autism.
“It’s been a phenomenal trip for us,” said Angela. “Every year, we see the progress he’s making. We see a lot of the old Michael when he does something that we know he would have done anyway if he hadn’t had that shot.”
“It’s really about the transition period,” Michael Townsend said. “Once he got over that, he blossomed and came into his own. We feel honored and blessed to have Michael as our son.”
Michael II’s dad credits the family’s faith and church family at Faith By Hearing Christian Center, where Michael II was welcome to be himself. He now serves as a junior usher at the church. In the classroom, he is a computer whiz and popular student who expresses concern for absent students and is eager to please his teachers.
Although he is limited verbally, teacher Carolynn Pierce said he has made great strides in his communication skills as well as become a willing participant in classroom activities and required work. But it’s his personality that have made him a favorite with those with whom he crosses paths.
“He will jump up and say, ‘Hi! I’m Michael Townsend – at your service,’” Pierce wrote in her nomination letter. “He has been a joy to work with.”
“I’m proud of my brother for his accomplishments,” said Aris Townsend, who says she and Michael have a “typical brother-sister relationship.”
“We want to let all the people who gave Michael this award that we are grateful and humbled they selected him,” Michael Townsend said.