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Man with autism had extraordinary start — and all-too-common (in the Washington area) end

Brett Badin, a 32-year-old man with autism, was fatally injured when a car hit him as he crossed Rockville Pike on Jan. 16. (Family photo)

Before Brett Badin’s parents learned why he wouldn’t be able to do things other people could, they witnessed him do things other people couldn’t.

By age 1, he could spell words.

By age 4, he could do addition and tell time from a clock with hands.

In third grade, his teacher held a contest to see who in the class could say the alphabet backward the fastest. He won easily.

It was that year, or maybe it was the one before it, when his parents took him to a developmental pediatrician and learned he had autism. They already knew he had a disability, but until then, they hadn’t been given a name for it. When he was 3, a pediatrician had told them only that he would need special education.

“To be honest, I don’t think it hit us all that hard, because we had been watching his progression,” recalls his mother, Mindy Badin. She and her husband, Joe Badin, had seen their quiet baby remain a quiet toddler, not saying much even when his peers started to have conversations. They had noticed how a boy who displayed a mastery of math seemed far from being able to grasp potty training.

They had accepted that their son was at once extraordinary and always going to need help to hit some ordinary milestones.

When talking about the long, and growing, list of people who have been fatally hit by cars in the Washington region in recent years, it would be easy to condense Brett Badin’s life into a one-line biography — a 32-year-old man with an intellectual disability who was struck and killed while crossing Rockville Pike.

But he was much more than that.

He was a person who needed help organizing his bills but remembered the birthdays of everyone he knew. He was a federal employee who was never late for work and gravitated toward the chocolate cake at office parties. He was a son who wanted to live independently but also wanted to spend every Saturday with his parents.

On their own, but not alone: How a group of men with autism found an independence their families weren’t sure they would ever have

“I’m going to miss everything about him,” Mindy Badin says. “I asked Joe the other night if we were ever going to get back to normal. He said, ‘We’re going to have new normal.’ We really looked forward to Saturdays with him.”

On those Saturdays, they sometimes went to the movies, museums or for a hike. Usually, though, they watched Brett bowl.

For about 15 years, he spent every Saturday during the fall and spring with his Special Olympics bowling team. His parents and two younger sisters even planned their vacations around his bowling schedule, knowing he wouldn’t want to miss a single session.

On the rare occasions no one could drive him to the bowling alley, he took the bus or Metro on his own.

After Brett graduated from a special-education high school, his parents helped him learn how to take public transportation. Eventually he was getting himself to classes at Montgomery College and to his first internship.

“I remember the first time I let him go by himself, I was a nervous wreck,” his mother recalls. “But I knew he could do it. He even told me, ‘I feel confident.’ ”

Later, when Brett moved into his own condo, he used public transportation each day to get to and from his job at the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“He was the person I would email on my way to work and say, ‘Can you please print these documents for me?’ ” recalls Alexandra Bonnie Garcia, his supervisor for 10 years. “He was kind, dependable, trustworthy.”

He was also always on time, which is why she grew worried when she didn’t hear from him by 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 17.

When he still hadn’t shown up for work by 8:50, she called his parents. That’s when she learned he had died the previous night, shortly after he stepped off a bus across from an IHOP where he was heading to meet friends. He was hit by a car about 6:30 p.m. near Wootton Parkway. Mindy and Joe Badin say the incident is still under investigation and they don’t fully know what happened. They say they knew Brett to always take the crosswalk, but it appears he was not in one at that time.

In the days after his death, his co-workers placed flowers and pictures on his desk. They ordered his favorite foods: Papa John’s pizza and chocolate cake. Counselors were also made available in case they needed to talk.

“We are grieving,” Garcia says. “We miss him dearly.”

On Saturday, a memorial service will be held for Brett near the IHOP. His parents will be there. So, too, will be some of his friends who have disabilities, and their parents, who have had to strike a balance between worrying about them and helping them find independence.

Also in that crowd will be members of Action Committee for Transit (ACT), which is organizing the event. The memorial service is one of 10 the group has held for pedestrians and cyclists who have been killed on Montgomery County's roads since August. On Saturday, the group will also hold a service for Michael Gamboa, who was hit by a car on Rockville Pike a day before Brett.

On Wednesday, ACT tweeted a picture of the section of Rockville Pike where Brett was fatally injured, along with these words: “If this road had been safe for ALL users, for ALL transportation modes, for people of ALL abilities — If human life took priority over mobility — Brett would still be alive.”

Miriam Schoenbaum, an ACT board member, says some people will want to dismiss Brett’s death as unpreventable because he wasn’t in a crosswalk. But she said they should be pushing for safe roads that are built based on how people actually behave. They should be questioning the distance between crosswalks, where buses stop and other factors that might have made a difference that day. The county has a Vision Zero initiative that calls for reducing severe and fatal traffic collisions, with the goal of seeing zero by 2030.

Pedestrians continue to be at high risk on Washington region’s roads

Mindy and Joe Badin both say they saw roads and sidewalks differently when they first taught Brett how to navigate them. Now that he’s gone, they are again seeing them in ways they hadn’t before.

“Now, we see so many close calls of incidents with pedestrians and cars that don’t need to be,” Joe Badin says.

Schoenbaum says her group has been tracking traffic deaths but in August decided that wasn’t enough: “We decided we needed to start doing memorials so it’s not just another name, so it’s not just another news story.”

So it’s not just a one-line biography lost in a growing list.

At each of the memorial sites for the pedestrians are two reminders that a life was lost there: a plaque bearing a name and a pair of white “ghost” shoes that represent steps that person will no longer take.

Next to Brett’s name will be a pair of white bowling shoes.

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