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A Spectrum of Graduates

An incredible sense of pride came over me as I listened to Sef Scott's, now famous, graduation speech. We all know that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village with a specific set of skills to raise a child with autism. Advocate parents, motivating siblings, supportive teachers, and kind peers help children on the spectrum reach their fullest potential, and help others see what often goes unnoticed. Thankfully, with the help of his mom and brother, Sef delivered an amazing graduation speech to his peers with charm, humor, and boldness. He encouraged his classmates to "do the unexpected" and reminded them not to "follow someone else's dream." The standing ovation was well deserved, and after I finished wiping the tears from my face, I had a moment of reflection.

Nothing makes a former elementary special needs teacher feel aged like seeing former students graduate. It’s a day you know will eventually come, but for some reason it always seems light-years away, regardless of how much time has passed. This year two of my former babies (I will always consider any child I've ever taught to be my baby) graduated. As my heart filled with joy while seeing pictures and watching videos of each of them walking across the stage, I also had a very sobering moment.

One student is graduating with an alternative degree not equivalent to a high school diploma, as she’s been classified as SID/PID (severe/profound intellectually disabled). All her life she’s been in classrooms, including mine, where she was exposed to grade-level curriculum, but was never able to effectively communicate her understanding of the content. As a result, her goals and objectives have always been heavily modified to match her perceived intellect. Due to her inability to produce words or write out her thoughts, her educators have had to make assumptions about what she comprehends academically. Our educational system doesn't often think outside the box when it comes to finding more effective ways to help nonvocal children. As a result, it often feels as though we (educators) are not doing enough to uncover what’s beneath the surface. Though I always believed my student understood everything she was taught, I had no way of showing others what I saw in her. It was frustrating for me; I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for her. But regardless of our inability to reveal her mind, she still got her moment to walk across the stage at her graduation.

Then there’s my other graduate: same age, same diagnosis, completely different ceremony. This graduate is not only leaving high school with a diploma—she is the valedictorian of her class and will be attending a prestigious HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in the fall. I couldn’t help but tear up when I reminisced about her as a little girl. I thought about the struggles she’d faced at school and at home. I recalled her persistence in standing up for her younger sister, also on the spectrum, when others were unkind. Listening to her valedictorian speech was a reminder that no matter what the professionals say, a child is truly capable of anything when the right supports are put in place. She, like Sef, did the unexpected and defied all preconceptions of what a child with autism can accomplish. This young lady is truly a rock-star and I can’t wait to see the woman she will become.

While acknowledging both graduates, I thought about both girls’ parents. Both sets of parents have girls with the same diagnosis but two completely different projected post-high school experiences. One girl’s parents will have to research day programs, respite care, and possible work programs. The other’s will focus on all the things that come with preparing a young woman for college and dorm life. Same diagnosis, completely different trajectories. Same diagnosis, different qualities of life. Same diagnosis, different exceptions. This is what we are talking about when we say autism is a spectrum.

This tale of two graduates is not unique. On April 26, 2018, the CDC released new data suggesting that the current prevalence for autism is 1 in 59 children. What’s often overlooked, is that fifteen years from now, those 1 in 59 children will be 1 in 59 adults. Both these young women and their families are stepping into a new phase of autism life and both will require support. As a community, there is much work to be done to assist adults with autism after high school. In comparison to ten years ago, it is now easier to find help for young children with autism, but there is still a devastating lack of support, options, and assistance for adults with autism.

As time goes by, my hope is that service providers (I’m holding myself accountable to this as well) will expand their knowledge and expertise, finding meaningful and impactful ways to help young adults with autism transition into adulthood. We can’t neglect the fact that children grow up. They deserve to live their best lives, and I hope to contribute to the solution that enables them to do so.

Thank you, grads. Keep inspiring and keep shining!

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