I should be simply thrilled that my “special needs” daughter, Sarah, is graduating with a BA from Pace University in May. (Knock on wood.). But “simple” is not in my vocabulary, at least not when it comes to Sarah. Diagnosed on the autistic spectrum with a variety of labels at one year old, Sarah, at 23, has far exceeded the expectations of many evaluators, doctors, and educators with whom she and I had the misfortune to meet during the last two decades. Of course I AM delighted and proud to see Sarah graduate college. In fact, I wish all of those negative prognosticators who said she would “end up in an institution, never go to college, marry, or have children” will read this blog. I want them all to apologize and attend the ceremony at Madison Square Garden on May 21st when she receives her diploma.
Success is the best revenge, and Sarah has certainly overcome enormous challenges, including (pragmatic language delays, social skill issues, perceptual, visual and motor planning problems and severe learning disabilities, especially in reading and abstract thinking. Today she is a senior in college with a 3.6 average and a yearly merit scholarship of $17,000. But Sarah’s educational accomplishments are not the whole story. They barely scratch the surface of my daughter’s humanity, of who she is and who she might (or might not) become. Leaving aside the question of marriage or children—a worrisome prospect for any parent of a child on the autistic spectrum—the big question after graduation is: “Now what?”
Sarah yearns to be “normal,” like any other college graduate. She desperately wants to find a job, live on her own and get married someday. Let’s start with Sarah’s job prospects. Now her situation gets dicey. Googling employment opportunities for college grads with autism has yielded no useful links so far. I’m in pioneer territory once again, as I had found myself over 20 years ago when beginning my search for therapists, schools and colleges. Recently autism has received a lot of attention, as more and more children are diagnosed “on the spectrum.” Today there are plenty of links for colleges with support programs for high functioning students on the spectrum, most of which did NOT exist 5 years ago when Sarah was looking for colleges. The U.S College Autism Project (USCAP) lists about 20 colleges with support services. Interestingly, Landmark College (where Sarah earned her Associate’s Degree) and Pace University are missing from the list.
I have already consulted with the internship/job placement person at Pace University’s OASIS program, specifically designed to meet the needs of autistic spectrum students. Originally, we had thought Sarah could be an assistant teacher for young children if she could pass NYC’s certification test. She has been a summer volunteer, working with special needs kids for the past two years at Learning Spring. My daughter loves working with 5 and 6 year olds.
But now it turns out the city is not giving the certification tests for assistant teachers because there are NO openings. I’m told that neurotypical candidates with masters’ degrees are competing for these jobs nowadays.
The good news is that Sarah will spend half the summer acting as the female lead in “Night to Shine,” an independent film about two young adults on the autistic spectrum who struggle to connect romantically. This full-length feature is an expansion of a short film made by director Rachel Israel as her thesis project for Columbia University, where it won “Best Film” among other honors. (See my earlier blog, “Sarah’s Fifteen Minutes).”
So what about an acting career? I’ve always been an optimist and encouraged Sarah to set her sights high and work hard, but well… I also have to be honest. Sarah is “a natural” at playing a young woman with disabilities, but a Shakespearian actor she’s not. Even talented neurotypical actors, with years of training, struggle to make ends meet by waiting tables. And most of them never succeed. Sarah had no time for acting lessons; she was too busy with tutoring and therapy.
From the beginning, Sarah’s goal–and ours—was for her to go to college and graduate. When our daughter was a toddler, college seemed like such a long, hard journey, with the destination light years away…. During our darkest and most difficult days, we couldn’t help but wonder if the naysayers were right. Had we embarked on our own hellish version of “Mission Impossible?” The answer was more than enough to worry about. Back then we thought there was plenty of time to help Sarah choose a career. We’d worry about it later. But now “later” is only a few months away.