I should be simply thrilled that my “special needs” daughter, Sarah, is
graduating with a BA from Pace University in May. (Knock on wood.). But
“simple” is not in my vocabulary, at least not when it comes to Sarah. Diagnosed on the autistic spectrum with a
variety of labels at one year old, Sarah, at 23, has far exceeded the
expectations of many evaluators, doctors, and educators with whom she and I had
the misfortune to meet during the last two decades. Of course I AM delighted
and proud to see Sarah graduate college. In fact, I wish all of those negative
prognosticators who said she would “end up in an institution, never go to
college, marry, or have children” will read this blog. I want them all to apologize
and attend the ceremony at Madison Square Garden on May 21st when
she receives her diploma.
Success is the best revenge, and
Sarah has certainly overcome enormous challenges, including (pragmatic language
delays, social skill issues, perceptual, visual and motor planning problems and
severe learning disabilities, especially in reading and abstract thinking. Today
she is a senior in college with a 3.6 average and a yearly merit scholarship of
$17,000. But Sarah’s educational accomplishments are not the whole story. They barely
scratch the surface of my daughter’s humanity, of who she is and who she might (or
might not) become. Leaving aside the
question of marriage or children—a worrisome prospect for any parent of a child
on the autistic spectrum—the big question after graduation is: “Now what?”
Sarah yearns to be “normal,” like
any other college graduate. She
desperately wants to find a job, live on her own and get married someday. Let’s start with Sarah’s job prospects. Now her
situation gets dicey. Googling
employment opportunities for college grads with autism has yielded no useful
links so far. I’m in pioneer territory once
again, as I had found myself over 20 years ago when beginning my search for
therapists, schools and colleges. Recently autism has received a lot of
attention, as more and more children are diagnosed “on the spectrum.” Today there
are plenty of links for colleges with support
programs for high functioning students on the spectrum, most of which did NOT
exist 5 years ago when Sarah was looking for colleges. The U.S College Autism Project (USCAP) lists
about 20 colleges with support services.
Interestingly, Landmark College (where Sarah earned her Associate’s
Degree) and Pace University are missing from the list.
I have already consulted with the
internship/job placement person at Pace University’s OASIS program,
specifically designed to meet the needs of autistic spectrum students.
Originally, we had thought Sarah could be an assistant teacher for young
children if she could pass NYC’s certification test. She has been a summer volunteer, working with
special needs kids for the past two years at Learning Spring. My daughter loves
working with 5 and 6 year olds.
“I like teaching them how to use their words and
how to behave appropriately,” Sarah says, smiling proudly.
Of course she does. Sarah was once one of those difficult,
out-of-control 5-year olds. She has
lived in their world, and in fact attended the very same school (a predecessor)
where her speech therapist is now the school director. In some important ways—including
empathy—Sarah is uniquely qualified to work with these children.
But now it turns out the city is not giving the certification tests for
assistant teachers because there are NO openings. I’m told that neurotypical candidates with
masters’ degrees are competing for these jobs nowadays.
good news is that Sarah will spend half the summer acting as the female lead in
“Night to Shine,” an independent film about two young adults on the autistic
spectrum who struggle to connect romantically.
This full-length feature is an expansion of a short film made by
director Rachel Israel as her thesis project for Columbia University, where it
won “Best Film” among other honors. (See
my earlier blog, “Sarah’s Fifteen Minutes).”
about an acting career? I’ve always been
an optimist and encouraged Sarah to set her sights high and work hard, but
well… I also have to be honest. Sarah is “a natural” at playing a young woman
with disabilities, but a Shakespearian actor she’s not. Even talented neurotypical actors, with years
of training, struggle to make ends meet by waiting tables. And most of them never succeed. Sarah had no time for acting lessons; she
was too busy with tutoring and therapy.
From the beginning, Sarah’s goal–and ours—was for her to go to college and graduate. When our daughter was a toddler, college seemed
like such a long, hard journey, with the destination light years away…. During
our darkest and most difficult days, we couldn’t help but wonder if the
naysayers were right. Had we embarked on
our own hellish version of “Mission Impossible?” The answer was more than
enough to worry about. Back then we thought there was plenty of time to help
Sarah choose a career. We’d worry about it later. But now “later” is only a few
Labels: actors with disabilities, assistant teachers, autism, autistic spectrum, colleges, employment for disabled adults, Landmark College, learning disabilities, OASIS, Pace University, special needs