As April ends—and with it so-called Autism Awareness month—I thought it would be appropriate to discuss discrimination against people on the spectrum and how it seems to apply to my beloved daughter, Sarah.  Early last month, Sarah auditioned to sing the national anthem at graduation as part of a choral group at her college. Given that she has perfect pitch and tremendous range as a lyrical soprano, it was both surprising and disappointing that Sarah was not selected. To those readers who know both me and my daughter, I think you’d agree that I’m extremely objective about Sarah’s strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, everyone else will give me the benefit of the doubt.

     I’m not a crazy mother who complains about everything.  I’ll start by saying that the autism support group at Sarah’s university has provided excellent academic support: motivated and patient tutors, a variety of helpful accommodations as well as strong advocacy with professors in courses that Sarah found difficult.  Without the attention and dedication of these professionals, my daughter would not be collecting a B.A. degree from this university or most other learning institutions in the next few weeks. That said, there is still a lot of work to be done by the university toward integrating autistic spectrum students into the mainstream student body, and offering them real (not “token”) opportunities to exhibit their talents outside the classroom 

     While legislation on banning affirmative action in various states is front page news, the articles never include any discussion about students with disabilities. Isn’t it equally important to include disabled students as it is to embrace all races and gender identities as part of a group? Don’t disabled students deserve representation as much as any other minority in order to have an optimally diverse student body? The following email protesting my daughter’s rejection was my small effort at affirmative action.  (All names with asterisks have been changed).

Dear Carolina,*

My daughter, Sarah Edelman,* auditioned for you to sing the national anthem at graduation, and by now it’s clear that she wasn’t selected.  This is deeply disappointing to her and to me, especially given the fact that she is a senior graduating from the university’s autism support program with a 3.6 average. More importantly, my daughter is a lyrical soprano with perfect pitch and an extraordinary voice.  I understand–as does Sarah–that given the challenges of being on the autistic spectrum and having learning disabilities, she was never going to succeed in her auditions to be a musical theater major.  She will never be an actress in one of Shakespeare’s plays or appear on Broadway. That did not stop her from auditioning, despite never being called back. But why not allow her this one last opportunity, and include her very special and beautiful voice at graduation?

We don’t expect her to be a soloist for Penema,* but I find it unfathomable that you would not WANT to include her in your choral group. I have listened to many of the singers in Laura’s class perform along side Sarah, and although many of them may be more proficient at acting, no one has a better voice, comes better prepared, or learns songs faster than Sarah.  Even after Laura Greco* (one of your very own professors) recommended her and made you aware of her challenges and strengths, you haven’t responded.  

However, I find it hard to believe (and hypocritical) that a university like Penema, which supposedly values diversity–enough to include an innovative and successful program to support high-functioning students on the spectrum–would not include a student like my daughter to sing the national anthem. 

Last week I attended “Training the Talent of Artists with Autism,” where a world famous author and innovator with Asperger’s Syndrome was the featured speaker, and the art of Penema’s students with autism and other artists on the spectrum was exhibited and auctioned for the benefit of Penema.

Just imagine my frustration as a mother in trying to nurture the musical talents of my daughter at a school that refuses to recognize or include her in her last opportunity to show the world what she can do best.

I don’t expect to change your mind.  But maybe next year, or the year after, you’ll think differently and realize that you have acted against the spirit of diversity which Penema supposedly embraces. I am sick to death of hearing about diversity–all the efforts to include and respect minorities, sexual identities and preferences etc.–when those efforts fall short of including all the strengths and abilities of those on the spectrum (not just art which can be auctioned off for money). To me it’s all just lip service….

As Laura could tell you–and probably did–my daughter shows up, follows directions, picks up a song after hearing it once, and is fearless in front of an audience.  In addition to working with Laura, she’s had professional voice training for many years and sang in the choral group at Landmark for two years. Sarah would really bring something special to the stage at graduation and give you as good or better performance than those you have already chosen, while at the same time demonstrating the school’s commitment to students with disabilities. 

For purposes of fund raising, it would also be an excellent PR move for parents of kids in the growing autism support program to know their kids were being warmly welcomed into the Penema community and given well-deserved opportunities outside the classroom. If word gets out that our kids get opportunities at Penema that they can’t get elsewhere, it would only help to attract greater support from those families currently enrolled in the autism support program as well as the families of alumni.

I would love for you to reconsider and somehow find a place for Sarah.  It would mean the world to her in a world where opportunities for people like her are few and far between.  However, if it’s too late to include her, I hope–at the very least–to receive the courtesy of a candid response.

Thank you for your consideration.

 Marguerite Elisofon

            The reply came 9 minutes later. I suspect my email made someone in the administration nervous.  “Handle that woman before she makes trouble,” I can just hear some dean saying. Did they throw me a bone or a hunk of gristle? You decide…

Thank you so much for your email.  Sarah is a great person and very talented. However, she was not selected to be the singer for the undergraduate ceremony.  I had many auditions by students.  I apologize for not getting back to you, the students were informed if they were selected they would be contacted.  We are putting together a pre-video for the audience and a student leader is working on that video-perhaps Sarah would like to be a part of that. If so, she can contact Dr. So and So,* AVP and oversees commencement.  I do know that a student on the spectrum has won the trustee award on the Arrowville* campus and will speaking at our annual Board of Trustees Meeting. 

Lastly, do you think she might like to sing at the freshmen convocation on Sept 2nd on the NYC campus? Please let me know and my apologies. 

Carolina Rogers*

     Sarah accepted the consolation prize of singing for freshman AFTER she graduates. (It’s better than nothing). However, in writing back to Carolina, I couldn’t help feeling puzzled and disappointed.  If Sarah is talented enough to sing in September, why not in May at graduation when it would be so much more meaningful to her and her family?  And why tell me that another student on the spectrum has won an award?  How is that relevant? Am I supposed to feel better that another student with autism was honored for some other reason, while my daughter was overlooked?  Or is this supposed to prove that the school honors the spirit of diversity because a student with disabilities won an award? 

     Yesterday my daughter was notified via email that she will graduate with distinction because her GPA is above 3.5.  Numbers don’t lie and our daughter can’t be denied.

     Bravo, Sarah! Sing your heart out in September.  Maybe next April your alma mater will be listening to auditions with greater awareness.




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