Julian’s eyes were smiling and dancing. His gaze went from the letter (he was holding ) to me, then back and forth a few times. He started pumping his right fist as he bounced up and down in a joyous celebration. My son had just found out he was going to college. The University of North Carolina-Greensboro had a place for Julian.
This was back in early March. We’d been awaiting word for several months from the school’s Beyond Academics program. The period between application and notification had begun to take its toll on our family. I imagine this is a particularly anxious time for all families, however for us it was intensified several times over. If he didn’t get in what would be next for our son?
As I’ve shared with you in the pass, education and academic achievement hold a prominent place in our household. Martina and I both come from families that expected, and would accept nothing less than, excellence in the classroom. During our sons’ formative years both were constantly reminded of the importance of such matters.
This became problematic once we had come to certain realizations about Julian’s autism. High school proved to be very difficult for him, especially his tenth grade year. He had a mental breakdown and, eventually, had to repeat the entire year. He regressed so dramatically that doctors weren’t sure if he’d ever recover to the point of functionality he’d displayed prior to the break.
Forever seared in my memory is a meeting we had with a group of (well-meaning) educators, shortly after his return to school. The general consensus, from them, was that he would never be able to complete work for a diploma.
“Realistically what we’re looking at, for Julian, is a certificate of attendance.” Though spoken softly the words flowed from the educator’s mouth with a marked degree of dispassion and a measure of coldness. As Martina’s hands tightened around mine I didn’t have to look at her, I sensed the tears.
She gathered herself and pronounced to all, “If you don’t want him here then we’ll find somewhere for him. But don’t tell us he can’t do this!” The two of us were not willing to throw in the proverbial towel at that point. We knew our son.
After finding the right learning environment for him, a very small specialized school within our public school system, Julian found his academic footing. It was never easy but, with tremendous support, he got on track to graduate. His expectation after that, instilled in him by his parents, was college.
Only a handful of schools in the entire country have programs designed for people with autism. With increasing numbers of persons, on the more functional end of the autism spectrum, graduating from high school every year there are not enough opportunities for those wishing to pursue college. In fact there are less than fifteen full-time programs, like Beyond Academics, in the nation.
We applied to the UNC-G program, which is in our home state and open to anyone with a developmental disability, that previous August. They were only going to bring in around twenty new students. So, as the months passed Julian’s anxiety level increased. It got to the point that he monitored the mail delivery.
One day I was reading a letter containing some disappointing news about a friend of mine, the look on my face reflected the letter’s content. Julian happened to be in the room;he saw me open the envelope, begin to read, noticed my reaction and was off to his own conclusion.
” I’m not going to college! Am I?” His voiced was raised and he started pacing back and forth as though he were verging on a meltdown. I calmed him down and assured him that every letter arriving at the house was not from UNC-G. Julian simply couldn’t process why it was taking so long.
In his mind no news was bad news. His autism had led him to fixate on receiving acceptance from UNC-G. So we constantly were reminding him that it takes time. We went through a version of the above scenario several times a week for months. As much as he wanted to receive the news, truth is, Julian really had no concept of what it would actually mean for him to be in college. That’s a story for another time.
Hopefully you now have a better appreciation for the exultation the letter triggered in Julian. My son, who knew he was different from so many others, was basking in the moment that thousands of high school seniors experience. It only took the first few words to get him going. “Julian we are pleased to inform you that you’ve been accepted…..”
Someone was telling him, you’re wanted. So many persons with autism need to hear that more.