Keeping her dreams well in hand

Autumn Simpson has never let being born without her right forearm slow her down. Now, with her new prosthetic "Hero Arm," she dreams of a career in law enforcement.

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Local News

February 20, 2020 - 10:09 AM

Autumn Simpson, who was born without a right forearm, has maintained a typically busy teen-aged lifestyle. She’s now expanding her horizons through use of a bionic “Hero Arm.” Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

There’s not much Autumn Simpson is afraid of trying.

“Oh, she’s fearless,” her mother, Tricia, notes. “She’s always been that way.”

Simpson, 15, leads a typically busy teenager’s existence.

The Marmaton Valley High School sophomore is an honors student and keeps busy in several clubs in and out of school. She’s been in plays, the dance team, remains active with the Kansas Association of Youth and is a part of FFA.

She never considered being born without a right forearm much of a disability, and isn’t about to start now.

Basic tasks most take for granted — tying shoes, washing hair, climbing trees, even paddling a kayak — quickly became a matter of adapting, practicing and then overcoming barriers.

“If she couldn’t get something, she just kept at it until she got it,” her mother said. “She’s kind of stubborn that way.”

Simpson has used prosthetic arms along the way, getting the first as a 2-year-old; the second a few years later after outgrowing the first.

Both had their drawbacks. As a youngster, she soon found the arm was perfect for pinching her older brothers.

With the second, “it was really heavy, and it wouldn’t always do what I wanted it to,” she said, “so I didn’t use it a lot.”

Fast forward to last fall, when Tricia Simpson learned about a new prosthetic that recently hit the market in Great Britain — the Hero Arm.

Developed by Open Bionics, a UK-based start-up tech company, Hero Arms cost a fraction of their more traditional predecessors because they take advantage of 3D printing technology.

They operate using sensors attached to the skin to detect muscle movements that move the hand and fingers. The company’s products have a decidedly science fiction approach. Simpson’s prosthetic, for example, is designed to look like she was cast in “Iron Man.” (She got to pick the design.)

She has worked with the arm since receiving it in October, making regular therapy trips to Allen County Regional Hospital, and working with it in her spare time.

“I use it a lot in my room,” she said. “I don’t really take it anywhere. I used to take it to school, but it’s like dead weight until I get used to it.”

SIMPSON was born in Fort Bragg, N.C., where her father, John, was stationed with the Army.

Her parents were unaware of her missing forearm until the day she was born.

“The doctors at the hospital said it was one thing, the Shriners another,” Tricia recalled of Autumn’s arm.

Doctors at the hospital described the likely culprit as amniotic band syndrome, a disfigurement caused when the inside of the mother’s placenta shreds and wraps around an infant’s appendage.

“The Shriners gave us a word that was about five miles long,” Tricia said, “so we went with the amniotic” diagnosis. 

But aside from missing her right forearm, young Autumn was remarkably adept at keeping up with her older siblings. (She’s the second youngest of seven, and the only girl.)

Her older brothers were a bit protective, and a bit too permissive at times.

“She was spoiled,” her mother laughed. “Her three oldest brothers would let her do whatever she wanted. I finally told them, ‘You’ve got to tell her no sometimes.’”

She carried on like anybody else her age. She’d wrestle with her siblings, climb trees, play games.

The Simpsons were at Fort Riley for her first day of daycare. The providers were curious if there were any limitations, or warning signs they needed to be aware of.

“I turn around, and she’s climbing a ladder,” Tricia laughed.

The family was in New Mexico when she learned to swim, “and scare her mother,” Tricia laughed. “She had no fear of anything.”

There’s been one effect, few would think of.

“I get unbalanced sometimes,” she said, “but it’s not like it happens a lot.”

IT WASN’T until Simpson was about ready for kindergarten that she realized her arms were different from those of her friends. 

“It was a case of ‘When am I gonna grow a hand like everybody else,’” her mother said.

The family went back to the Shriners, who outfitted Simpson with a slightly larger prosthetic arm and hand. Like the first one, it was controlled with a strap slung around her shoulder. Maneuvering her shoulders controlled the hand.

“She got pretty good at pinching her brothers and not letting go,” Tricia Simpson said.

But for the most part, she rarely used the apparatus, content to make do on her own. (She’s even become adept at picking up items with her feet — including at the dinner table.)

FOR THE most part, Simpson’s friends gave little notice to her abnormal appendage.

One of her older brothers didn’t take kindly to a classmate’s rude comment and settled matters after school with his fists.

“To be honest, I was more worried about moving back to Moran,” said Tricia, who grew up in the Moran area. “When we were living on post, there’s such a variety of people that many houses had kids with something different. Most parents knew not to stare.”

That wasn’t always the case in Moran, she continued.

There was a trip to a convenience store, when Simpson emerged from a restroom to see a parent with her kids huddled in a corner, staring conspicuously.

“I got a little nasty at that one,” Tricia said. “I just told her that if she had a question then she should come up and ask, then be on her way.”

“I don’t think I noticed it,” Simpson added. “There are times more recently I noticed, but I wasn’t really annoyed.”

Her mother gently disagrees.

“I think on a level, she was a bit annoyed,” the elder Simpson said. “She’d find a way to hide her arm. We try to give her a thick skin.”

WITH SIMPSON nearing high school graduation, her mother was eager to find Autumn a new prosthetic for when she’s out on her own.

That’s why she was intrigued about the Open Bionics model.

At about $20,000, it’s significantly less expensive than other similar bionic prosthetics. Insurance covered the cost of this one.

The arm, including the Iron Man paint scheme, arrived just before Halloween.

Since then, she’s worked with it regularly.

They expect it will last her three to five years, depending on how much she grows in that time.

There are limitations. It’s not waterproof, and she must take care not to damage either the plastic skeleton or the sensors.

“She was a little annoyed she couldn’t do pushups with it,” her mother laughed.

For now, Simpson is content grasping the finer points. Learning to pick up a pencil; ride a bike with it (easier said than done; the Simpsons have neighbor dogs who like to chase passersby).

“The first week she was ecstatic,” her mother said. “She let me take all kinds of pictures. She’d even pose for them. But after the first three weeks, it’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s not do that anymore.’ Now I get yelled at if I pull the camera out.”

She works with the prosthetic regularly in the privacy of her bedroom.

“It’s going pretty well,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get mad. I think I have an anger issue.”

“I don’t think it’s an anger issue,” her mother interjected. “I think it’s a matter of her getting frustrated and upset.”

There are limitations. She can lift only a few pounds with it, and she dares not try pouring any kind of liquid; at least for now.

“If it breaks, we have to send it all the way back to the UK,” her mother explained. “So we’re very careful with it.

AND THERE’S been an unforeseen side effect.

Prior to getting her Hero Arm, Simpson’s nubbin, as she affectionately calls it, was pretty much impervious to pain. She even cut it once, and didn’t feel it

But since getting the arm, her forearm has begun to ache, sometimes constantly.

One of her specialists has wondered if a bone has begun to grow and is putting pressure on the nerves in her arm; or it could be a matter of her muscles developing and putting pressure on the bone, and then the nerves.

“These are muscles she’s never used before,” her mother said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s causing it. Right now, it’s kind of a wait and see thing.”

SIMPSON has grand ambitions after high school. 

Though her dream to follow her father John’s footsteps in the military is out of the picture because of her arm, she’s intent on pursuing a similar path.

“I really want to study law and criminal justice,” she said, perhaps with a future in the intelligence community; even the CIA.

Her mother is confident Autumn will thrive on whatever path she chooses, particularly now that she’s equipped her Hero Arm.

“She’s already doing a lot more with it than she’s ever done before,” her mother said. “She’s a strong little gal.”

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