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The Dash Between: Micah Black expressed himself in song

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Micah Black’s autism limited his verbal communication to 2- or 3-word phrases, but it could not prevent the Elyria teen from singing all the lyrics to a movie soundtrack’s worth of songs.

“He was our classroom’s live iPod,” said Tim Duttry, who served as Micah’s personal attendant at Murray Ridge School. “Any song from ‘Mary Poppins’ or any Sunday school song, you could give him the first two words, and he could sing most every song. He knew every word.”

An outpouring of condolences — many on Facebook — followed Micah’s death on March 30, 2010, at age 16. He apparently died in his sleep from a swelling of the brain.

More photos below.

“People leave flowers at side of the road (when a fatal car crash has occurred),” said Micah’s father, Michael Black. “That’s what it was like with the Facebook pages from people whose lives he touched.”

Micah Robert Black was born Aug 16, 1994, in Oxnard, Calif.

His father, a California native, and his mother, Diane, who grew up in Minnesota, worked full-time with the Covenant Players, a Christian drama ministry.

The Dash Between:

About this feature

The dates of birth and death that appear like bookends on a tombstone do not matter as much as the dash between those dates: The life that a person lived.

The Dash Between is an obituary feature written by Alana Baranick about regular folks from Lorain County and adjacent areas. Baranick wrote her first obit in 1985 when she was a reporter for The Chronicle. She wrote obituaries for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer from 1992 through 2008.

She is the chief author of “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers” and director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. She won the 2005 American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award in the Obituary category.

Today, Alana Baranick examines The Dash Between Aug 16, 1994, when Micah Robert Black was born in Oxnard, Calif., and March 30, 2010, when the Murray Ridge student died at age 16.

The Dash Between is scheduled to appear in The Chronicle every other Sunday.

To suggest a story or make a comment, contact Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com.

Read more:

During Micah’s first years, the Blacks worked at a ministry office in Texas and performed plays at churches and schools in Kansas and Nebraska.

“We went touring with Micah when he was 2½,” Diane said.

Micah had been ahead of many of his peers in walking, talking, feeding himself and developing other skills. But when he started to lose vocabulary and left the company of playmates to play alone in a corner, looking at books or lining up trains, his parents realized that something was amiss.

“Just before he turned 4, we were having difficulty finding a diagnosis for him,” Diane said. “So we started to look at different areas that the ministry covered. This one covered only one-quarter of the state of Ohio,” while others covered as many as four entire states.

The Cleveland Clinic, Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and Akron Children’s Hospital kept cropping up on lists of the top medical facilities in the country.

Being able to serve in the ministry while staying close to home and the reputation of regional hospitals sealed the deal for Micah’s parents. They asked the Covenant Players director to assign them to Ohio.

The Blacks moved to Elyria in November 1997, a month after Micah was diagnosed with autism.

They enrolled Micah in a special education kindergarten at McKinley Elementary School, which was around the corner from their home. At the first parent-teacher conference, teachers made it clear that Micah should continue his education at Murray Ridge Center. His parents worried this move would mark Micah with a flag of disability.

“When I look back now, it was probably the best thing we could have done for Micah,” his mother said. “We have been very happy with not only how he was educated but how he was prepared for life. They were preparing him for the adult workshop. He had a uniform and everything. He was shredding papers, helping clean up the cafeteria, tidying up the nurses’ station.”

Duttry greeted Micah as he came off the bus at Murray Ridge and made sure he boarded the bus to go home.

“When I first started with him, he was a runner,” Duttry said. “He’d just dart out of the room. This past year, he’d say, ‘Bathroom please,’ before he walked out.”

Micah could be sweet with his younger brother, Christopher. He liked to stroke Christopher’s arm gently, as if he were a puppy or cat.

Yet he often became frustrated when he couldn’t get people to understand what he wanted to convey to them. He could figure things out, but couldn’t always express himself. When he became agitated as a child, he’d break down and cry. As he grew older, his agitation took the form of aggression.

“If he was having typical teenage attitude, you could tell he was coming out of it,” Duttry said. “He’d get real remorseful.”

When he couldn’t get Duttry to comply with his request of “Micah outside” last fall, Micah kicked his attendant in the shin.

“When he realized he messed up, he sang, ‘Happy Birthday.’ After he did that, I had to turn my back. I was laughing hysterically.”

But the intensifying challenge of managing their 6’2” autistic teenager at home sometimes led to dark times for Micah’s family.

“I think all of us — no matter what our life experience has been or will be — know that life is not fair,” Micah’s mother said. “And no matter how hard you try or how good you are, tough things still happen.

“Even though our lives being affected by autism was filled with uncertainty and frustration, the fact that we were blessed to have Micah in our life was a joy that surpassed the pain.

“I’m not saying my life was a bed of roses with him. It wasn’t. There were plenty of thorns.

“But I know that our lives have been richer and much more detailed in a full experience with him than we ever would have experienced without him.”

Contact Alana Baranick at (216) 862-2617 or abaranick@chroniclet.com.

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