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Adaptable Alex

Being born without arms doesn’t cramp his style

WEST VALLEY CITY — Alex Brotherson is like other boys his age: He plays baseball, he loves jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool, and he even once rode a skateboard down the stairs.

What sets him apart from his buddies at Robert Frost Elementary is how he starts his school day: He kicks off his shoes. It helps him write better.

Alex was born without arms. He has a single finger on his right shoulder that he uses to carry a paperback book or hit the button on a water fountain.

But the 9-year-old does most everything else with his feet. He writes — with better penmanship than his older brothers, his mom says. He eats and plays chess with his toes.

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He can even ride a bike, crouching down like Lance Armstrong, steering with his shoulders and finger.

Last week, he participated in his school's rite of passage for fourth-graders: lunch duty.

"It's fun," Alex says as he sits on the lunch counter with the cleanup crew, stacking trays with his plastic glove-encased feet. "It's fun to help."

Alex adapts. As a baby, he didn't crawl — he scooted on his bottom. His parents, Jenny and Jeff Brotherson, used to wince when he was learning to walk. Without arms, Alex can't break a fall. He often banged his head.

But when he started school, his kindergarten teacher had her son teach Alex how to fall like a soccer player, to the side, so he doesn't get hurt, his mom says. He wears a helmet when he goes out to play.

His mom is surprised Primary Children's Medical Center hasn't named a wing after him, with all his bumps, bruises and concussions, many suffered while proving a point.

"He would not be as far as he is if he weren't ... out to prove somebody wrong," says Cindy Rogers, a Granite School District occupational therapist who has worked with Alex since he was in kindergarten. "He uses his toes like they were fingers — he can put his shoes and socks on faster than you and I. I had heard he played baseball and all this stuff, and I thought, yeah right. But he does."

He climbs on a step stool-like chair in the lunchroom. He washes his feet with a baby wipe, then uses his toes to unwrap and plunge straws into juice boxes, eat a sandwich or pick up Cheetos. At home, he sits on the counter top to do dishes when it's his turn.

His classroom chair is higher than his desk, so he's not wrenching his hips to do schoolwork. He's also learning to use the computer via Morse code. He types code with foot pedals, which the Darci computer program translates into letters. That, Rogers believes, will protect his hips and back, while allowing him to become computer proficient.

But on other stuff, Alex wants no exception.

He insists on joining the class in learning to play the recorder, a short clarinet-like instrument, even after Sherrie Dahl, a certified occupational therapy assistant, tried to find adaptations or alternatives that might be easier for him to manipulate. Alex wouldn't hear of it, she says.

"He doesn't want to be different than anyone else," says Karen Foote, Alex's math teacher. "He wants to fit in."

"I don't think kids even recognize (his differences) anymore," Jenny Brotherson says.

Alex does karate, glides on those tennis shoes with wheels in the heels, and plays soccer and kickball and four-square at recess and day care. He even tells of run-ins with schoolyard bullies. Sometimes he stands his ground, he says. Sometimes he loses.

When the family goes out, Jenny Brotherson says adults are most apt to stare. "Kids will come up and say, 'Where's his arms?' and he'll say, 'I was born without them.' But grown-ups ... they don't ask. He'd rather have someone come

over and say, 'Where's your arms?' than point."

As a preschooler, Alex was fitted with artificial arms at Shriners Hospital. But he was too little to understand the nuances of controlling them with subtle shoulder movements, his mom says. He may try them again in a few years.

Meanwhile, he continues to do things his way.

"Alex does not view himself as handicapped," his mom says. "We'll see people who are ... and he'll say, 'Wow, look at that person over there.' It doesn't dawn on him he's in the same category."

Alex describes himself as a happy, nice kid who likes to help people. And, he says, "I can do different stuff you can't do."

Alex dreams of becoming a police officer or an attorney — his mom says he has the gift of argumentation — or a number of other professions.

"I hate to be the person to tell him he can't ... (because) he's going to do it anyway," Jenny Brotherson says. "He just adapts. He makes his world what it needs to be for him."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com