Conley, Georgia (Senate District 44)
“Am I more powerful than ever?” Julius wonders aloud, as he works to fill in the colors on his latest drawing. Indeed, it is a very powerful thing to watch Julius while he works. He’s in his element, concentrating, in command of all the colors.
And color is what Julius is all about. His drawings of animals—lions, tigers, aardvarks, zebras, rhinos—many of them white, are set against brightly colored backgrounds in diagonal, straight or swirled patterns. He draws almost exclusively on cardboard. Julius believes this medium works best for his art because it keeps the colors vibrant, and it helps the art travel well. He’s developed a special technique for further preserving the pieces. He buys dozens of bottles of glue every month and uses the glue to seal the porous ends of his cardboard pieces, as well as coating the pieces all over, almost as if they were laminated. “Cause like for the inside, for example, I pour lots of glue in here,” he explains, holding up the end of a piece of art, “and I compress it for up to 13 hours, and then I do the other inside for another 13 hours or so with putting books on top of it so it'll hold.” Did anyone help him develop this technique? “That went inside my brain. I learned it myself.”
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One thing Julius is very clear on, his product should be called sketches, not paintings. He doesn’t work with paint: “I don't like getting my clothes all stained and waterproof and disgusting.” Julius has chosen the title cartoonist/folk artist for himself. When he meets a new person, he walks up, greets them by shaking their hand and lets them know that’s what he is.
At the time of this writing, Julius Brown is a 27-year-old man with autism. He was born a fraternal twin to his brother, Tyler. In the first minutes after they were born, Julius received a much higher score than Tyler on the Apgar test, the measure which medical practitioners use to quickly summarize the health of newborns against infant mortality. Born three hours and 23 minutes after Julius and by cesarean section, Tyler actually scored a zero Apgar score. Loreen states that her labor was induced because of an increase in her blood pressure caused by edema. Julius was born 24 hours after the initial injection of labor-inducing drugs.
Regarding his early life and diagnosis, Julius’s mother, Loreen, says that Julius displayed many of the early characteristics of autism. “He had tongue thrust issues as a baby,” she says, relating that it caused Julius to choke when he was small. He was originally diagnosed at about 16 months with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). As someone who’d been in the field of special education for 11 years at the time, Loreen says she knew that this diagnosis missed the mark. “It didn't tell me anything. I want you to be specific.” The later diagnosis of autism when he was around 3-years-old helped Julius’s family understand his appropriate lines of treatment.
Loreen says that Julius probably has more physical and communication skills than he might have otherwise, thanks to being a twin. Tyler would figure out how to do things, and Julius would follow suit. Sometimes, though, that brought about a few headaches. Once when their grandmother was babysitting, Tyler figured out how to escape from their play area, and Julius was right behind him. At 15 months, when the family still lived in California, the boys were put into a speech program as they were still babbling, something that is not uncommon for twins. As it turns out, their delayed speech was for two different reasons. Whereas Julius’s related to his intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD), Tyler’s was related to persistent ear infections. Tyler had tubes put into his ears and began speaking better the same day because he could hear better. By the time the boys got into pre-K, they were separated and put into different programs. Julius benefitted from special education programs first in California and then when they moved to Georgia.
Julius lives at home with his parents in Conley, Georgia. Loreen says that she has been in the early stages of trying to find an independent living situation for Julius for a while now. She’d like to help him find a roommate, preferably someone without a disability, but perhaps someone who would be willing to serve as Julius’s part-time support staff. Julius would like to live an independent life, and Loreen is eager to help him do so. He’d even like to find a girlfriend.
Even though he’s ready to live on his own and enjoy a more independent life, Julius’s Comprehensive Supports (COMP) Medicaid waiver, which he’s had since the age of 23, helps him get out and about in the community while his mom is at work. A support-staff person (Loreen feels strongly about not calling that person a caregiver) works with Julius several days a week. She takes him to places he likes to go, including the gym, shopping, the library and most importantly... the zoo!
Julius love of drawing animals directly relates to his deep knowledge and love of animals in the world. He’s a virtual encyclopedia of animals, so there’s just nothing like accompanying him on a trip to the zoo. "I especially love the biggest lizards of them all that have venom inside them. Can you guess what that is?” he asks. In case you don’t know, it’s the Komodo dragon. Although he vividly remembers his first trip to Zoo Atlanta when he was 12, Julius has lost count of how many times he’s been here since. As a member, he can come any time he likes.
It’s a rainy, cool morning in October. The zoo is decorated for Halloween. Speaking of dragons, the Halloween decorations especially feature the occasional dragon. Julius stops to admire a dragon and explains that, although he generally draws animals that can be found in real life, dragons are an exception. He loves to draw them as well. As he approaches the elephants, Julius turns on his best tour guide mode, explaining, “They eat grass, and they eat hay, and they eat leaves. And they can also eat fruit. Did you know they have one tooth in the middle of their mouths? One tooth for crushing it.”
Many people with autism have something that becomes their area of expertise, and animals are clearly Julius's expertise. No one is quite certain where Julius’s fascination with animals originated. When they first moved to Georgia when Julius was about 9, he had the opportunity to visit Noah’s Ark, a wildlife and domestic animal refuge center located outside Atlanta. Julius is still sad about the fact that the lion there has passed away, but he remembers enjoying a lot of other animals: “Yeah, but the lion was dead from a horrible illness. But there are some wolves and let's see cougars, and several different types. And you're gonna love it. And, of course, there's also the prairie dogs. And snakes that are solid yellow. I love the prairie dogs.”
Another way that Julius’s passion for animals translates into other aspects of his life is that he is also an environmentalist. He has spoken at public events about saving the environment and even spoken out about the potential removal of trees to extend a road at the end of his own cul-de-sac. He’s against this development for fear that it will disrupt the ecosystem of thousands of animals. Julius even wrote to the president to voice his concern, "because I’m worried about animals losing their homes,” he says, “and the trees being cut down.” He was delighted that the president wrote back, sending him a signed picture, along with a lot of information about the environment. Loreen would like to help Julius create his own nonprofit someday, so that he can continue to take action around his passion and help other people become educated as well.
One of Julius’s paintings features two hands against his signature rainbow background. He calls it “The Golden Hands of Midas.” When she was in sixth grade, his older sister, Arielle, wrote a poem as she was studying Greek mythology. Her teacher loved it so much she sent it on to a national K-12 exhibition on Greek Mythology in Texas. This brings us to an important point, which is that Julius is not the only artist in his family. He says that his father often jokes, “Who’s the best artist? Julius is. Who’s the best theater artist? Arielle is. Who’s the best athlete? Tyler is. Who’s the best poet? I am!”
Even though his mom wasn’t included in that list, she has an amazing title as well. Loreen has been a professional in the field of I/DD for over 35 years. She has a bachelor's in social work and two master's, one in organizational management and, most recently, psychology with a specialty in autism. Loreen has been a long-time advocate for students and parents with I/DD, recently gaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for a 20-year-old with I/DD in California. She is also a proud 2006 recipient of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sunshine Award for her activism in their school district. “I have one [client] that's currently at the myLIFE program at Emory, which I'm actually looking into getting Julius in that program.” Loreen says that Julius would be able to use some of his COMP waiver for that purpose as he has both a Community Access Individual (CAI), as well as a Community Access Group (CAG). He has not yet found a way to use his CAG funds, and the Emory program would be an ideal way to do so. Inclusive Post-Secondary Education (IPSE) programs are often a way that high-functioning adults with mild I/DD are able to further their professional and personal development after high school.
Along with the ability to work on his art in the myLIFE program, Julius would be able to enjoy cooking with his fellow roommates. And cooking is something Julius already loves to do. “I like making brown sugar chicken,” says Julius, “and also whole wheat spaghetti and vegetable spaghetti and also we make refried bean burritos.” When Julius says, "we," he means that he and his mom get in the kitchen and cook all these amazing things together. Loreen has rheumatoid arthritis, which limits her movement. These days she uses a walker to help her get around. She says Julius is her legs in the kitchen. He does know how to make a number of things on his own though. He makes wings and has created his own sauce. Loreen marvels that recently, when he was making croquettes, Julius figured out that he needed to use two different utensils to turn them and keep them together. “There’s pretty much nothing he can’t pull off,” she says with admiration.
In alignment with Julius’s love of bright colors, his family lives in a house painted purple and gold, even featuring bright squares on the garage door. They originally lived in California, where houses are all brightly colored. Loreen says that the choice of purple and gold relates to many things in their lives, including the Los Angeles Lakers, her school colors and they’re Julius’s favorite colors as well.
While Julius’s trips to the zoo, which are facilitated by having support staff and a Medicaid waiver, are clearly important to Julius’s life and happiness, something that happens on a more regular basis are his trips to the gym. Julius recently put himself on a diet because the doctor told him he should get a little healthier. He lost 30 pounds. While Loreen applauds his discipline in the process, it was not easy, especially because of their aforementioned love of cooking together. Julius goes to the gym at LA Fitness 2-3 days per week, and he walks on the treadmill or does the elliptical machine for about 45 minutes. He also loves to get in the pool when he can.
Back at the zoo, Julius has done the full circuit, from tigers to pandas to llamas. On his way out, he’s struck by a display, a replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, which leads him to reflect on how dinosaurs lived in the world. “Hundreds and thousands and millions of years ago, different dinosaurs never played together, didn't become friends with all the same herds. They would just keep up to their own kind.” Does he think that’s why the dinosaurs died out? Because they couldn’t get along? “No,” he says, first forcefully, then a little more thoughtfully. “No, I think they always had a chance to get along. Dogs become friends with all different kinds.”
The dinosaurs should have taken a page from Julius’s book.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Haylee Fucini-Lenkey