When I say that you can have success no matter where you are on the spectrum, it’s because I’ve experienced it first hand. While Asperger Syndrome is on the mild end of the autism spectrum, I am on the severe end of the Asperger’s spectrum.
I was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until I was twelve. Autism awareness was not nearly what it is today when I was growing up. Back then, the doctors thought I had ADD. Despite current emphasis on the importance of early diagnosis, I know that early detection isn’t everything.
My parents knew that there was something wrong from early on, even if they wouldn’t know for many years what it was. As a newborn, I cried every day for hours because I was so sensitive to external stimuli. In pre-school, I would sit facing away from the teacher during story time because seeing her and hearing her at the same time was too much. Teachers told my Mom that I was intellectually incapable. They thought I wasn’t absorbing the information, but when asked questions about the story, I always answered correctly.
Due to a lack of knowledge and training, my teachers didn’t understand my autism, but they were very willing to make judgments about what I couldn’t do. I would never be potty-trained or read or write, they said. Throughout my elementary school career, I was placed in Special Day Classes that were entirely self-contained. They said I would never be mainstreamed. But I was capable of all these things and more. I just needed people to believe in me, like my family always did.
Diagnosis and Treatment
When I was twelve years old, I met someone who believed in me like that: Professor Lynn Koegel, director of the Koegel Autism Center at University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Koegel along with Dr. James McCracken, Director of the Division Child Adolescent Psychiatry at UCLA, were the first to recognize my condition as Asperger Syndrome instead of ADD. Dr. Koegel suggested a complete overhaul of my IEP to include integration into mainstream classes and inclusion in the general student population. These changes were done incrementally beginning in 6th grade.
Throughout middle school and high school, I would travel to the Koegel Autism Center to work on social skills. One clinician who made a big difference in my life was a PhD student named Daniel Openden who was with me from seventh grade through my senior year of high school. For the first time, my social life flourished thanks to the skills that Danny helped teach me. I discovered that I really did enjoy the company of my peers and made many friends!
With the proper medication and continued one-on-one assistance, I excelled academically in middle school and high school. But instead of my academics, some school personnel continued to focus on my behavioral and social differences. Again, I was told that if I was going to complete high school, it would be in easy classes, college prep was impossible. Why did I to put myself through college prep courses, some asked, if I would never go to college? But we refocused our efforts making college our goal. With lots of hard work and support from my family and teachers, I got all A’s and B’s from seventh through twelfth grade. My academic performance was good enough that I was admitted to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 2007.
Going to UCSB
At UCSB the Koegels started a pilot program to support high achieving ASD students through college. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that program. A lot of us are smart enough to keep up with the curriculum at a great school, but we don’t have the social skills or study habits to have successful lives outside of the classroom on our own. Despite the increased challenge of college courses, I never failed a class. I worked closely with the Austism Center throughout my college career. They hired a student aid to help me in my classes and I continued to work with a clinician on social skills.
I lived at home, about an hour’s drive away, for my first two years of college, but by my third year, I was living in the dorms at UCSB. At that point I had friends from the dorm and from different campus organizations and I was enjoying campus life. I graduated from UCSB in five years with a degree in Sociology.
Since graduating from UCSB I live independently, have a job and have a driver’s license. I drive up to see the people at the Koegel Autism Center every week to work with them on life skills. Success on the spectrum is a never-ending process of hard work, perseverance and hope. I am dedicated to sharing my story with others through speaking. I want to inspire others with autism and their families so that they, too, can defy expectations and find Success on the Autism Spectrum™.