Jared St. Pierre is just like any other 4-year-old boy. He loves watching Elmo, going for long car rides, playing in puddles and bickering with his older brother. What sets Jared apart is that he has autism.

But Jared’s dad, Jean, doesn’t resent the fact that his son can’t formulate the words to say “I love you.” Instead, Jean is thankful for the gift of adaptation that Jared has unknowingly taught him.

“Jared has taught us more than we’ve taught him,” Jean says appreciatively. “The best thing about my son is that he shuffled up my cookie-cutter life.”

All figured out

A native of Jay, Jean was content knowing he could live and die there in the company of his large doting family – more than 300 members live in the greater Jay area.

He graduated from Jay High School and the nearby University of Maine at Farmington, before becoming a financial consultant for American Express. He and his wife, Melissa, have two sons, Matthew, 6, and Jared.

When Jared was 2, Jean and Melissa noticed something was different about their son. At first, they thought he was going deaf but after an exam with a neurologist in Lewiston, the St. Pierre family got some life-altering news.

“They told us Jared had mild autism,” Jean says, remembering. “That was good news for us. It was a sigh of relief that it was only autism, and it wasn’t something that would kill him.”

Autism is a developmental disability that affects the development of the brain, causing difficulty with communication, learning, and social interaction. In the United States, 1.5 million people have been diagnosed, and experts predict that number will multiply to 4 million by 2013.

Raising a son with autism in rural western Maine isn’t easy, and so after 30 years of living in Jay, Jean and Melissa decided to relocate their family to Brunswick.

The move put them closer to the May Center for Child Development in Freeport, a special school for young students, ages 2 to 8 years old with autism, mental retardation, developmental disabilities, brain injury and special heath-care needs. The school prepares students with social skills so they can make a smooth transition into the public school sector, Jean says.

Since arriving at the school two years ago, Jared has been transformed, his dad says proudly. He now responds to his name, communicates using gestures and is learning sign language.

“Short of no communicating and quirky behavior, he likes to do things just like a 4-year-old kid. I think of all the things that could have been, or should have been, but I don’t feel as if I am deprived. I feel like we’ve been blessed,” he says, with a smile on his face. “The word special, in special needs, is there for a reason.”

Jean says Jared has taught him “a simpler approach to life”, one that values patience above all else, and shies away from materialism.

Although he can’t communicate well, he shows his dad he loves him in other ways, clutching Jean’s sports blazer at night when dad is away on business trips and giving Melissa, Jean and Matthew lots of adoring hugs. “He isn’t any more difficult than any other child. We love him, so we just do whatever it takes. A kid is a kid,” Jean says, laughing. “I try to remember he is a 4-year-old boy and 4-year-old boys jump in the mud.”

Giving back by pulling together

The St. Pierre family is so grateful to the school that has changed their son that they have decided to organize a fund-raiser walk.

The five-mile jaunt will take place in Brunswick and Jean thinks the event can pull in $20,000, all of which will stay at the Freeport center and buy supplies that kids like Jared need to succeed.

Already, Jean and Melissa have raised $3,000 on their own and back in Jay, the St. Pierre family has stepped up to help. At Al’s Tire in Jay, owned by Al, one of Jean’s 10 siblings, $1 from every oil change goes to the walk as will all the profits from the family’s annual yard sale in May.

“I have been nothing short of impressed and in awe of what my family has been doing. They have just shocked me by rallying behind me and my family. It’s really brought us all together.”

Jean hopes that by supporting an institute like May today, it will be easier for parents tomorrow to raise autistic children, like Jared.

“After the initial shock, it’s been a lot of fun,” Jean says of the roller coaster of being a parent of a child with a developmental disability. “It’s been a wild ride for two years. But I’ve enjoyed every mile and look forward to whatever comes next.”

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