They called him the Pig Whisperer when he was little because he would hang out with his baby pigs in their pen for hours at a time. Now Cole Gregory Thomas is 8, and he still cozies up to the piglets he raises through Washington County 4-H Club. Cole is our Kid Hero this month because in spite of his disability — nonverbal autism — he excels in all sorts of cool things, like showing farm animals at fairs, drawing dinosaurs (his favorite), identifying insects and solving jigsaw puzzles. Cole is in the second grade at Bob Folsom Elementary.
Kids with nonverbal autism can’t speak and have other problems as well. Cole was diagnosed when he was three, but his parents, Andrew and Ashley Thomas, started him in different therapies before that, which has made a big difference. He takes physical therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy and speech therapy. He can now say about 75 words and counting! He also communicates through picture cards. This is a special and very effective method called PECS—Picture Exchange Communication System.
Cole lives on his grandparents’ farm in Farmington with his mom, dad, big sister Chloie, and cousins while the Thomas’ new house is being built. The whole family has always been active in 4-H. Cole became a Clover Bud when he was five. “4-H has had a huge impact on Cole’s life,” his mom said. “Our family joined 4-H because we love to show our livestock projects, but being part of 4-H has allowed Cole to branch out and learn different things, like learning about bugs.
“Being around his hogs is his happy place,” she said. “Cole’s biggest 4-H project is showing hogs, but he also shows chickens. His schedule is pretty full with school and therapy, but we still make time to be in the barn every day no matter what, even if its messing with baby pigs or cleaning out pens. We make his 4-H projects priority.”
Sometimes things can get frustrating for Cole. He shows at the Arkansas Junior Swine Series in Fayetteville, but the kids have to show their animals without help from anyone. Cole can get overwhelmed with what is called sensory overload, so he wears noise-canceling earmuffs. His mom said they help him keep his focus on his pigs instead of everything else going on around him. But even with these difficulties, “Cole is a happy kid. He doesn’t get angry or upset,” said his mother. “We don’t let his disability define or label him.”
As Chloie, who’s 12, explains, “He has not just proven to me, but to everyone that there’s nothing he can’t do — he may just do it in a different way than what you or I would.” There’s no doubt about who her hero is. “Cole is my favorite person in the whole world. People say all the time how much he looks up to me, but in reality, I look up to him. I am so proud I am the one he gets to call sissy.”