McLean resident Tom Quatman, 65, says he will probably celebrate World Autism Awareness Day, April 2, at a local Hooters.
Quatman was diagnosed with autism nearly 60 years ago, as a boy living in Lima, Ohio. Autism rates are steadily climbing, and April is now designated as National Autism Awareness Month, according to experts.
The rate of autism in the U.S. has increased 78 percent in just the past decade, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC, which compiled statistics from 14 nationwide centers, says the condition now affects one in every 88 children, compared to the one in 156 figure reported only 11 years ago.
The CDC classifies the condition as a pervasive developmental disorder that can interfere with a person’s ability to communicate with — and relate to — others.
A new government health survey of parents indicates that the 1 in 88 CDC statistic might even be conservative and that there may be as many as 1 in 50 of school-age children that are affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“This striking number does not replace the official government estimate of 1 in 88 American children. However it strongly supports research suggesting that the 1 in 88 figure is an underestimate,” said Liz Feld, president of national awareness advocacy group Autism Speaks.
Feld said each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.
About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate using other means. “Autism Speaks’ mission is to improve the lives of all those on the autism spectrum, she said.
“For some, this means the development and delivery of more effective treatments that can address significant challenges in communication and physical health,” she said. “For others, it means increasing acceptance, respect and support.”
Back in the 1950s, when Quatman was diagnosed, there wasn’t a lot of research or special care available for those with autism.
Melinda Mooney, his sister, said Quatman was sent as a young boy to a Catholic boarding facility in Wisconsin that until 1931 was known as “The St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth.”
“He lived there for quite a while,” said Mooney.
Today, Quatman lives with Mooney and her husband, also named Tom, in McLean. The couple own Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub in Old Town Alexandria.
Quatman says he is an aficionado of both “mixed drinks and pretty waitresses” and is particularly fond of the Hooters restaurant chain. He claims to have visited 65 of the restaurants — one for every year he has been alive — including the original in Clearwater, Florida. He can be seen nearly at all times wearing beaded necklaces from some of his favorite locations.
“That’s who I am,” he says. “Hooters, Disney World and Ohio State University sports are what life is all about.” That, and his three weekly workouts at the Tysons Sport & Health club.
“I was somewhat of a junk food addict and got up to about 230 pounds,” Quatman said. “I would regularly eat three Sloppy Joes and wash it down with a 40 ounce root-beer float for dinner.”
Quatman’s sister said that was after he’d already had a substantial snack.
“He would often eat a whole loaf of bread before dinner,” Melinda Mooney said.
In 2009, Quatman underwent heart-valve replacement surgery. “Tom loves sports, but he couldn’t ever go to live games because he was in such bad shape,” said Tom Mooney. “In a way the surgery was a godsend.”
After his heart surgery, Quatman slowly began a steady regimen of healthy eating and working out three days a week with a personal trainer. He lost 56 pounds, and today he walks around a lot further with a lot less effort.
“We had a long talk and said no bread, no cheese and no fast food,” said his trainer, Kristy Clarke. “He really has disciplined himself, and he keeps up with that diet and his regular workouts.”
Quatman, who says he will only work with “pretty female trainers,” says he has a specific goal in mind.
“I’m going to stick around for awhile,” he said. “There are a lot more Hooters I haven’t been to yet.”