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Pen pals become lifelong friends: Autism Acceptance Month

Home News Stories from the Turnpike Pen pals become lifelong friends: Autism Acceptance Month

Back in 1993, I knew very little about those who had autism. But then Jason came into my life.  

It was in a traditional way - a letter - but the letter was odd. I didn’t quite know what to make of this passionate plea about the PA Turnpike. 

I was the Turnpike’s photographer back then, and I didn’t usually get letters from customers, so I was surprised when another letter came in, similar to the first. And another and another – all with very long, run-on sentences about interchanges and route numbers. 

One day, our former head of Fare Collection, Sam Sadler, mentioned Jason and the letters he had received. Sam informed me of Jason’s autism, and then it all made sense. So, I began to write back – a lot of letters! The subject was always the Turnpike. Jason’s mom, Clair, was worried that his letters were annoying or burdening me in some way. I told her I loved getting his letters and writing back, too. We had become pen pals! 

After knowing his mom and finding out more about Jason’s autism, I decided to make his wishes come true and arranged for him to take a tour of the Turnpike and meet some of our workers. We did that several years in a row. Jason has a great ability to make friends wherever he goes, and he made a lot of friends in District 4. 

Until recently, April was called Autism Awareness Month, but in 2021, that designation was changed to Autism Acceptance Month -- an important distinction, Autism Society of America president Christopher Banks told USA Today. 

"Acceptance is when you include (a person with autism) in your activities,” he said. “Help (them) to develop in that community and get that sense of connection to other people."  

One in 44 children in the U.S. have been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and as the name implies, it comes with a certain set of behaviors often called the spectrum since it affects people differently to varying degrees. Organizations like the Autism Society are there and show those on the spectrum can live full lives and to promote acceptance. 

For me, it was acceptance that created a lifelong friendship. It has been 30 years since Jason sent me that first letter, and we still write often – and he saves them all. While Jason no longer collects tolls, we still get together once or twice a year. 

Most recently Jason, his mom and I got together to celebrate Jason’s 48th birthday.

 - Chrissy Bennett, PTC Marketing Specialist