I wish all the naysayers of the past 23 years could see Sarah now. All those educators and therapists who told me my autistic spectrum daughter would “never be independent and never go to college,” were WRONG. As of May 21st, Sarah graduated from Pace University with the Class of ’14. No, she didn’t squeak through with Cs. My super-determined daughter worked tirelessly to achieve a 3.59 GPA and earned a CUM LAUDE award on a yellow ribbon. Like all the neurotypical students who achieved honors, Sarah proudly wore her bright yellow ribbon with her cap and gown. How many students worked as hard as my daughter? How many were so delighted they couldn’t stop beaming for three whole hours?
I’m not just another proud mother bragging about my daughter’s grades at her college graduation. (But I’ll admit to not being humble). I’m writing this for all of the new parents who are just beginning their journey of raising a child on the autistic spectrum. Here’s my message loud and clear: Don’t give up just because you’ve been discouraged by doctors and educators who read your child’s test scores and use terms like “pervasive developmental delays.” These so-called experts might be right about somechildren. But are they right about your child? When does a negative prognosis become a self-fulfilling prophesy? What are you able and willing to do to prove “the professionals” wrong?
The answers to these questions will vary widely according to where you live and the resources available in your area, as well as how much time and money a family can devote to a child with an ASD. There are no easy solutions, or if there are, I never found them.
Not surprisingly, Sarah also presented us with a heartbreaking array of learning disabilities: delays in receptive and expressive language, sensory processing issues, delays in reading and writing, and difficulties with abstract thinking which persist to this day. Nevertheless, Sarah yearned to learn. You might say she was desperately determined to succeed at whatever was difficult for her, and that was almost everything. We loved her work ethic—as oppositional as it was. What else could we do but hire a smorgasbord of tutors to help her succeed?
However, Sarah’s transition to Landmark College was anything but smooth. Despite the fact that Landmark’s population consists entirely of disabled students and promises lots of support, Sarah quickly fell through the cracks. She gained 16 pounds in her first MONTH of freshman year. Her first room-mate moved out on her after only three weeks. Even worse, nobody showed Sarah where to bring her laundry, and she didn’t ask. Instead she walked around smelling like a homeless person until I convinced the RA to take her just ONCE to drop off her laundry bag.
During the second half of her freshman year, Sarah’s advisor, Sally, suggested that she might not be cut out for college. Knowing that my daughter had difficulty with abstract thinking, Sally confessed that she’d tried to explain her misgivings to Sarah in concrete terms.
“Most Landmark students go on the college journey with a broken toe or a broken foot. You’re trying to do it with two broken legs and a broken arm.” She reported. “I wanted her to be able to take in the information,” she added, sounding pleased with her analogy.
“I hope Sarah didn’t take in that information!” I seethed. Could there be a more insensitive and inflammatory statement? I arranged for Sarah to have a new advisor, who turned out to be Sally’s polar opposite: warm, encouraging and upbeat.
In December 2012, Sarah managed to graduate cum laude from Landmark with an Associate’s Degree. The student “who might not be cut out for college” transferred to Pace University with a $17,000 merit scholarship and made Dean’s list 4 out of 5 semesters. Although Sarah hit a few bumps here too—failing two multiple choice tests for one course this semester—it was mostly smooth sailing thanks to the academic support and accommodations provided by OASIS, the university’s support program for high-functioning autistic spectrum students.
Currently, there are 37 students in the OASIS program at Pace University. Sarah is only the third to graduate, although four more are expected to do so in 2015. How rare is it for a student on the spectrum to graduate from a four year college? I looked on Google for an answer and found NO statistics about college graduates on the spectrum. More encouraging were the links to a growing number of autism support programs at colleges. Finally, higher education is finding ways to include this growing population of students whose brains are wired differently.
A new definition of diversity is emerging on college campuses, one that includes high-functioning autism in the student buffet of races, nationalities, religions and gender identities. But the autistic spectrum college student is a relatively new phenomenon. The OASIS program is only 5 years old.
Maybe one of these years Google will be able to compile statistics on autistic spectrum students who successfully complete a four year college. Until then, I’m not exaggerating when I describe Sarah’s graduation as a miracle milestone.