By Dan and Julie Coulter
What’s your best day ever? We had one of our best days recently when our son, Drew, graduated from college. It’s hard to describe just how big a deal this is for our family. Both of us went to college, and from the time we planned to have kids, we assumed they’d go to college, too.
But when we discovered Drew had Asperger Syndrome, all those plans got thrown up in the air. Actually, the plans went airborne a lot earlier, sometime after Drew got the first of a series of diagnoses starting in pre-school when he had trouble socializing with other kids. By the time we got the AS diagnosis when he was fourteen, we’d had years to worry if he’d ever be able to leave home, much less go to college.
This was one of the things that ran through our heads as we sat in the commencement audience at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C. It was a warm spring day under a clear, Carolina-blue sky. After the ceremony, we shared our thoughts with each other.
St. Andrews is built on two sides of a lake, with the academic buildings on one side and the student center, dorms and athletic center on the other. Students cross the lake on a walking causeway bridge to get from their dorms to their classes.
The commencement would be held, appropriately, on the academic side. From the far side of the lake, we heard the faint sounds of bagpipes. We could just make out a double line of students in royal-blue caps and gowns, starting across the bridge.
We thought about Drew’s early school days, when we kept hearing about how smart he was, but how isolated he was from most classmates. We thought about how we’d constantly had to adjust our expectations as he was growing up. We remembered the great support he’d had from so many teachers and other school staff. There were the elementary school teachers who understood when Drew’s mom served as a stenographer to record his homework before he learned to type, because his brain moved faster than his awkward handwriting. There was the middle school teacher who put a small sofa in her room and told Drew that whenever he was over-stressed in her class or during lunch, he could come sit on the sofa and take a break. Drew had a caring social worker in high school who helped arrange his class schedule with teachers who were understanding, guided him through tough times and celebrated his successes. Drew’s chemistry teacher started an after-school role playing game club, allowing Drew –- for the first time in high school -– to form a group of friends he could hang out with.
The line of students was now half way across the causeway, led by a kilted bagpipe and drum band playing a stirring rendition of “Scotland The Brave.” Along with other parents, we were on our feet with our video camera rolling. Drew came into view, looking sharp in his cap and gown.
We thought about how we’d had to find ways to help Drew expect a lot from himself and set high goals, without putting too much pressure on him. Helping Drew find ways to succeed gave him a sense of self-worth that counteracted the teasing and harassment he often experienced. During the summer before his junior year in high school, Drew played the wizard in “Once Upon A Mattress” at a college-sponsored theater workshop, throwing himself into the role and doing a stellar job. There’s nothing quite like the boost applause gives you. Even though we weren’t sure Drew could attend college, we encouraged him to take college prep classes and made modifications to his Individual Education Plan each year to encourage him to function independently. If college hadn’t been right for Drew, that would have been fine. But we wanted to make sure we gave Drew the opportunity to go if it was right for him.
The soon-to-be graduates were now filing into their seats. Drew spotted us and flashed us a grin. For the umpteenth time, we looked at his name in the commencement booklet, marked by an asterisk that noted he was in the honors program.
We thought of how worried we were when we dropped him off at college as a freshman, eleven hours by car away from where we lived at the time. In spite of our concerns about having him get his assignments done without mom and dad to check up on him, he settled successfully into college life. St. Andrews is a relatively small school where Drew was able to thrive. He got to know his professors on an individual basis and made friends who shared his love of Japanese Anime and role-playing games. While there were bumps in the road, each year Drew met new challenges. His senior year, he got a job as a computer lab monitor and earned his own spending money. As a creative writing major, he worked feverishly to complete a screenplay and thesis during his last few months of college. His last semester’s grades were his highest.
The speakers offered their advice and the graduates began crossing the stage. Drew accepted his diploma, then posed for a quick photo shaking hands with the college president. The ceremony ended with a recessional, accompanied again by the bagpipes and drums, and Drew was a college graduate.
You can look at this as a four-year accomplishment, but we see it as more of a 22-year accomplishment. Because of Asperger Syndrome, Drew often had to work twice as hard to accomplish half as much. He looked and spoke like a typical, bright kid in so many ways, it was hard for most people to understand why he also acted just a bit different. Why he couldn’t just try harder to conform, as if that was a simple choice and not a continuous, frustrating struggle.
As the sound of the bagpipes died away, Drew met us, his sister and grandparents for big smiles, congratulations and hugs all round. Even though he was eager to seek out his college friends and tell them goodbye, he endured a round of family snapshots first with good humor. Later, at the graduates’ reception, we met some of Drew’s professors and heard their positive comments about him. Drew’s creative writing professor gave him a book as a graduation present. Finally, we packed Drew’s final few items, piled in our cars and headed home.
Of course, college graduation is more a beginning than an end. Drew’s now faced with finding a job, living truly on his own -- not just independently in a college dorm -- and managing his life. He met his expectation to finish college –- a goal that helped him graduate. Now he has to develop new expectations, not to mention dealing with his parents’ expectations.
The lesson we all learned was to keep our expectations realistically high. To constantly change them to fit not just new situations, but new opportunities. To support expectations and make them not a source of anxiety and pressure, but a bridge.
Because these kinds of expectations can lead to some of your best days ever.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Dan and Julie Coulter produce videos about Asperger Syndrome and similar conditions. You can read more articles on their website at: coultervideo.com
Copyright 2006 Coulter Video All Rights Reserved Used By Permission