- Associated Press - Sunday, September 17, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Three inches of fish flesh, no more than two eyes and a wiggle on the end of a fishing line holds a world of emotion for a child, especially Sterling Snider.

He calls fish “bah-pay!” and he says it with gusto. No one knows where the word came from, but everyone who knows Sterling knows exactly what it means.

The 7-year-old lives a challenging life due to autism, but he apparently finds happiness, focus and peace, if only in short bursts, while fishing. Sterling; his twin brother, Steele; and his adoptive parents have found kindred spirits in the owners of Reel Time Adventures Guide Service on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.

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The Tulsa world reports that Bob and Catha Studebaker adopted the twin boys as babies after they were taken from a family member who has substance abuse issues. Reel Time owner Den Keith also has an autistic son, one of two adopted children taken from a family member with substance abuse issues, a 6-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl.

When friends from Houston needed refuge from Hurricane Harvey, they came north to spend a weekend with Bob and Catha Studebaker, and it was decided a fishing trip would be a good distraction.

They called Elk River Marina, one of their favorite lake spots, to ask whom to hire and found Tommy Vaughn and Den Keith of Reel Time. Bob Studebaker booked the trip with a warning up front.

“I told him, ‘I’ve got to tell you, one of these 7-year-olds is autistic and, you know, he might just decide to jump in the lake. That’s the kind of thing that you’ve got to watch, and he can’t talk very well.’

“Tommy said, ‘Bring him on, no problem.’”

Once on board the surprise was Studebaker‘s. He expected the guide would “tolerate” the youngster who is shy of strangers, easily distracted and a little wild at times, but having a friend and business partner with an autistic son had Tommy Vaughn well prepared to take the boy under his wing.

“I’m sitting here going, ‘Dang it, I guess I ought to fish,’” he said with a smile. “Tommy has this under control.”

The trip was not only a joy for both the boys, but it was also a welcome respite for a weary guardian.

“I can sit back and enjoy it. I like catching a fish when I can, that’s great, but I really enjoy watching those two boys have a good time,” Bob Studebaker said.

Studebaker said he would be happy to share the story, and Keith had words of hope for parents of autistic children and people with other disabilities.

Fishing, it turns out, can be a healing experience for just about anyone, Keith said. The Reel Time crew has helped anglers in wheelchairs and a blind angler, and they also did their best to accommodate an angler with terminal cancer recently.

For kids like Sterling, it’s a chance to experience new things and to socialize. Keith said he doesn’t worry about the potential dangers on a fishing boat with a child who might jump overboard.

“Honestly, I didn’t even think about it, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I also have an autistic child of my own, so I guess I didn’t even consider the fact that it might be challenging or it might be difficult; we just wanted them to go out and have a good time.”

Their Friday night outing was ideal for two young boys; it was relatively short, the weather was pleasant, and dozens of white bass lined up to bite their hooks.

“This is what’s great, what’s fun,” Vaughn said. “It’s not about the size or how many they catch. They’re just all having fun, that’s what it’s about.”

Jennifer Sollars-Miller, a founder of the Autism Center of Tulsa, said outings like the one Sterling and his family enjoyed are all-important and sometimes a little too rare. That’s why the group started its AOK Autism Friendly Locations program.

“One of the most difficult things for families can be going out in public,” she said. “People can be judgmental and make comments about poor parenting or make other remarks. They just don’t understand what is going on with that child. For a lot of parents, it just gets easier to stay at home.”

The AOK program was built to address what is called “an invisible condition.” It offers T-shirts, bracelets, even a card that an adult with autism can pull out of their pocket or wallet to help someone understand the challenges of autism when a social situation comes up in which the disability becomes visible.

Sollars-Miller, also a parent of an autistic child, said the idea arose from watching how others with visible disabilities were treated in public compared to her son.

“Once people realize a person has a disability, they’re more understanding,” she said.

It’s not only a social icebreaker but a safety issue, she said. Autistic children have a tendency to wander away and must be watched closely. She recalled the case eight or nine years ago of a local autistic youngster who wandered away from home and was killed in traffic.

“If people see a child wandering alone and they recognize that identifying bracelet or they’re wearing that (AOK) T-shirt, they can immediately recognize something might be wrong,” she said.

Creating a network of businesses and parents who recognize the AOK logo, use the logo in advertising and connect online to find autism-friendly locations should help more parents to feel confident in taking their children out in public, she said.

“It’s critical, so critical, for them to get out and enjoy different experiences, especially as children,” she said. “It’s huge for independence later in life. It’s easier when they start learning some social skills, how to interact and communicate with other people, when they’re young.”

Bob Studebaker said he had not heard of AOK, but he added: “I’ll be looking it up online. … That’s a great idea. Doing things can be real hard, especially going out to restaurants and that kind of thing where people just think it’s a brat kid, you know.”

On the fishing boat Sterling was no brat, just an excited kid who got to sit behind the wheel of the boat and have his fish pulled off the line for him.

He’s still not crazy about touching a “bah-pay,” or even getting close enough to have his picture taken with one, but on the holiday trip he focused on how to use the fishing pole and hooked and reeled-in several fish all by himself.

When a fish got away or he reeled in an empty hook, Sterling had a reaction typical of any angler: He stomped his foot and said, “Oh, man!”

Keith and Studebaker swapped stories about their children as they fished at the front of the boat.

“It’s kind of amazing, the similarities, as different as their conditions are,” Keith said. “It’s nice to be able to talk with another parent who can relate.”

Studebaker simply enjoyed the trip and said he appreciated seeing the child who struggles with so many things having an evening of pure enjoyment.

“You can see that he just loves it,” he said. “When he can come out here and to have this kind of fun … it’s worth a lot more than it costs, put it that way.”


Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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