I recently came across some of my journalism assignments from my various first year classes, and decided that my blog would be the perfect place to publish some of the things I’m proud of. In one of my classes, we had to write a feature story about someone who is “making it.” The assignment was vague enough so that each author had the option to choose a subject who had either attained great success, was overcoming some sort of challenge or is living somewhere in between. This is my “making it” story.
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Some may say that Miriah Reitmeier is one in a million.
On many levels, she is just like any ordinary 18-year-old girl, who memorizes celebrity gossip magazines cover-to-cover and has a keen knack for fashion.
Miriah enjoys hanging out with her friends, has a part-time job and absolutely adores her puppy Max.
She is super health conscious and works out at the gym to keep her figure.
She also prefers milk-based drinks at Starbucks over caffeinated ones, because she read a trendy fact somewhere that coffee isn’t good for you.
But Miriah is also an extraordinary girl.
She is an extremely gifted opera singer and an opera aficionado, a songwriter, a self-taught clarinettist and guitarist, an artist and an alumnus of the White Rock Youth Ambassador Program.
She also has an exemplary memory for detail, and knows facts and information on a wide range of subjects.
But statistics say that Miriah is one in 150.
She is among the approximate 65,000 Canadians living with the neural development diagnosis known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to Time Magazine.
“Autism is a type of disorder [where] people usually don’t socially interact with other people, and sometimes they don’t have the willingness to communicate with other people,” Reitmeier explained.
It is also the reason why Miriah is capable of such extraordinary things.
“In my home, I don’t usually use [the terms] special needs or autism or disorder… I just think about myself as a person who’s willing to overcome these types of challenges in life,” said Reitmeier.
“Instead of a disability or a difficulty or a learning disorder, it’s just a way of learning things differently,” she explained.
ASD is a spectrum of varying symptoms and varying degrees of severity, autism being the heart of the spectrum, followed by Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS.
It encompasses a wide variety of psychological conditions related to social interactions, communication and behaviour.
But Miriah’s situation, unique to less than one per cent of Canadians, is what allows her to attain greatness in various aspects of her life.
Miriah was first diagnosed in August 1997, right before her sixth birthday.
“Back in the early years, I wasn’t really learning about communication. Instead of using communication I would just be screaming, yelling and mumbling, and speaking a little gibberish, and that made my mother think that I wasn’t a part of a world that most normal people would be living in,” she said.
Her parents, Brenda and Mike, decided to take Miriah to the doctor because of her abnormal childhood behaviour.
“[The] first thing they did was the hearing test and the psycho-ed test, and I kind of failed both of those,” Reitmeier said.
“It just left both of my parents devastated,” she added.
And for Miriah, it seemed as though the challenges she was set to face for the rest of her life were only beginning.
“Ever since I was a child I didn’t have much friends back then, but then when I entered high school I was being picked on and people were calling me bad names for instance, and wouldn’t let me be a part of their groups,” Reitmeier said.
But with age comes maturity, and if not for her peers, then most certainly for Miriah.
“By the time I grew up to be 14 or 15 I realized that when I was a part of an activity for people with special needs, I realized what my disorder is and I just tried to make sure that I would not be feeling sorry for myself,” she explained.
And her “disorder” can hardly be called one.
“I don’t look at autism as a type of disorder, I look at it as a way of really to learn something from what your obstacles are. Autism is like a way of not willing to be in a different type of world [than from] where people are living in right now,” Reitmeier said.
“It[’s] just made me realize what my potential is like to be socializing with other people… what my potential is like to be forming good friendships and to be staying connected with other people,” she said.
One of the symptoms of autism is that social cues or body language are not picked up on, making day-to-day communication somewhat of a challenge.
But Miriah has taken conscious steps to try and change that.
“I’ve been learning more about the basic human brain and where autism triggers. Like inside the frontal lobes it triggers communication as well as the temporal lobes where it conflicts with the speech figures inside your brain,” Reitmeier said.
Communication through music, however, is a different story.
“Music has saved me from these types of challenges that I’m living with,” said Reitmeier.
“The only dream I’d like to have is to pursue my music career and travel all around the world and perform in different places,” she said.
And if that happens, she’d sing an array of easy listening songs, “a little bit of pop and rock and roll” and, of course, opera.
Her passion for, and perfection of, opera has developed over the years with the help of Mark Donnelly, one of Miriah’s many role models, along with her social worker Debbie Wanchuck and Margaret Atwood.
More commonly known as “Opera Man” who sings O Canada at Canucks games, Donnelly has coached Miriah for several years.
And like teacher like student: Miriah sings the national anthem for the Surrey Eagles and the Delta Ice Hawks on a regular basis during hockey season.
While music is a priority and a passion in her life, it is also a medium through which Miriah can let loose, be herself and practice social interactions.
“Ever since I’ve been a part of the music world I try not to think about my autism, even if that means I have to socialize with some normal people or be a part of some social therapies,” she said.
Besides practicing for at least two hours a day, Miriah sings with the Peace Portal Alliance Church’s choir, plays some gigs throughout the Lower Mainland and won the White Rock Youth Ambassador Program’s talent competition, held back in July 2009 in White Rock.
While autism may not be a major obstacle for the young artist when it comes to performing, stage-fright sometimes takes its place.
“I was a tad bit nervous when I first had come to perform in front of a big audience at the Coast Capital theatre for the first time because it seems like I’ve never performed at any one of those types of venues,” Reitmeier said, revisiting the night of the talent competition.
The WRYA Program allows youth to volunteer and give back to the community, and hone their public speaking and social skills.
Also known as the Miss White Rock pageant, the candidacy portion of the program requires the future ambassadors to give a speech, attend events, write a community knowledge quiz, write an essay and perform a talent among many other components.
“And you know, when I see ambassadors shine through the stage, it just made me think that if I ever happen to relive one of those moments through the program, then I’d be happy to, I’d be happy to go back to where I started and relive the moment,” said Reitmeier, referring to how the experience of having to get up on stage as an ambassador has changed her and her teammates.
Miriah sees each experience as a learning experience, and an opportunity for her to grow as a person.
“I don’t usually look at the negative things that are in the past, I look at the things in the past that are in a positive outlet,” she said.
As for her future plans, Miriah’s ideal goal is to study opera at the University of British Columbia, an ambitious goal.
“I would describe myself as a person with a lot of ambitions,” she said.
Her short-term goals include finding a second part-time job on top of her current position as a server at Peninsula Resort Retirement Living in South Surrey.
She also has plans to get her driver’s license, to travel and to find a boyfriend, but that’s an entirely different story.
And as for living with autism, Miriah sees it as a past event that will only bring advantages in her future.
“I don’t think about the disorder as a disability. I don’t usually see myself as a person with autism, I usually see myself as a person who is gifted,” Reitmeier said.
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