Son inspires Brandywine woman to action

Thursday, June 29, 2006

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Gywnn Park Middle School 6th grader Trenton Gilstrap was one of only two students to hold a 4.0 grade point average last school year. Gilstrap has a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome.

Your brain is like a personal computer, says Tatia Gilstrap of Brandywine.

‘‘If you leave the computer on all day or spill water on the keyboard, you can short-circuit it. The same thing happens to the brain when you have a seizure,” said Gilstrap, who’s recently begun speaking to students, teachers and other groups about seizures, autism and other socio-medial disabilities.

Gilstrap is launching a nonprofit organization to educate the community about these issues, which can hinder academic and social success. Her 11-year-old son, Trenton, is the motivation behind this idea. Trenton, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and battles with epilepsy, recently suffered a seizure in math class at school. But instead of taking a few days off to hide from his friends, Trenton reported to school on Saturday for a band event and was back in class on Monday.

‘‘Trenton is intelligent and demonstrates a lot of valor,” Gilstrap said. ‘‘He believes that if he can get his friends to understand what happened, they won’t tease people who suffer from disabilities. They’ll have empathy, not sympathy, and will lend a helping hand if needed.”

When her son had the seizure, Gilstrap said, some of his classmates didn’t know if he’d died or gone to the hospital. Working with her son’s math teacher, Gilstrap began peer-to-peer demonstrations ‘‘to help students understand the mysterious world of epilepsy.” Education can give students greater understanding and can help kids support people who are different, Gilstrap said.

‘‘We don’t give kids enough credit,” said Gilstrap, who has conducted four presentations since her son’s seizure in school. ‘‘When our kids come across an R-rated scene on TV, we turn the TV off instead of finding a way to discuss an adult topic in a way a child can understand. As a result, our children have to find out the information for themselves, or they feel confused or anxious. If we take a complicated topic such as seizures and break it down for them, they’ll grasp the topic.”

Gilstrap uses music and everyday language to communicate with young people.

‘‘How many of you like throwing snowballs?” she asked one group of kids. Once she heard the responses, she shared how some kids used to put rocks in snowballs when she was growing up.

Tatia Gilstrap
How she’s making a difference: Gilstrap is launching a nonprofit organization to educate teachers, recreation groups and others in the community about epilepsy, mild forms of autism and socio-medical differences that can hinder academic and social success. She seeks volunteers who can assist with grant writing and legal issues. Send an e-mail to
‘‘One strike to the head by one of those snowballs could cause seizures for life,” she said.

During the discussion, children can ask questions from cards that her son created. Trenton drew Yugi-Oh pictures on the front, then on the inside wrote such questions as ‘‘Are seizures contagious?” and ‘‘Is there a cure for epilepsy?”

‘‘It’s not a Powerpoint presentation,” she said. ‘‘I wanted something simple and kid-friendly.”

Her discussions also include information on using computers safely. Children who play computer games for long periods of time, for instance, might notice attitude changes in themselves or in their friends, she said.

‘‘Long after they stop playing the game, the sequences still can be playing in their heads,” Gilstrap said. Other kids might notice their eyes blinking or their faces twitching after long gaming sessions.

‘‘I tell them they’re in the seizure zone,” she said jokingly. ‘‘I try to put fun in the presentation.”

Gilstrap uses her presentations to speak to young people about self-esteem as well. Her son, for example, has learned that although seizures are a part of his life, they don’t control him.

Trenton didn’t talk with understanding until he was 5 or 6, Gilstrap said. When he was 9, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. At 11 he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

‘‘I remember a teacher from a private, Christian-based school advising me to find another academic structure for my son because that school wouldn’t understand how to develop his gift,” Gilstrap said. ‘‘I also was advised to put him in special ed. But with research, communication, guidance counselors, teachers and a properly written supplemental plan for success, some public schools can accommodate differently-abled individuals.”

Relying on social coaching and getting involved in appropriate activities can benefit those with mild forms of autism. Further, Trenton has learned to focus on what he does well and turn negatives into positives. He was one of two students who just received an award for maintaining a 4.0 for all four quarters at his school for 2005-2006. He also received a Medallion Award for Language Arts. He plays the alto saxophone.

‘‘Everybody deals with something,” Gilstrap said. ‘‘Your head might be big, you might be short, or maybe you have acne. One girl had trouble pronouncing a word during a recent presentation. I told her she got high marks just for trying, and I asked the audience to applaud her.”