There were two great articles I read this week and both involved stories of how Autistic kids have now become adults and are successfully graduating from college. Brian Schnelle is a 31-one-year-old man who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 7 and he recently graduated college after 12 years. He has always struggled with various skills but he has also had an incredible curiosity to learn. He cannot drive and he still lives with his parents but he is very bright in many ways. Although he is bright, the other issues made it very challenging for him to learn and to be consistent. It took twelve years for him to complete his degree because of those issues. He never gave up because the degree was always very important to him. What we see is this classic unevenness or imbalance of skills that is always present in Autism Spectrum Disorder and other similar issues like ADHD, OCD, and even Dyslexia. Part of the reason for Brian’s ultimate success is the support of teachers, therapists and especially, Brian’s parents. It is because of this therapy, commitment, and support that he was ultimately able to achieve these incredible accomplishments.
The other article is about a young man Montel Medley. He is a 23-year old man who is now graduating from Towson University. When he was 3-years-old he was essentially nonverbal and he is now not only fully verbal, but also highly intelligent, yet still had significant struggles to stay in and finish school. According to the article, it says “A valedictorian in high school, Montel found himself struggling to keep up with his course work. He stayed in his dorm, skipped classes sometimes, his grades started to plummet and by the end of the semester, he had failed three classes, got a B in one and a D in another.”
Now looking at this I think the most obvious question is how can this kid become a Valedictorian in high school, who is obviously smart yet be failing out in college. This is the nature of Autism and many other issues. His left brain academic skills are very high, yet his social, emotional and organizational skills are incredibly deficient. The only reason why he was able to be so successful in high school was that his parents were there to help him. The importance of this is what does this tell us about the nature of Autism and how we may be able to further help these individuals become the most amazing brilliant people they are without these great deficiencies that hold them back.
Montel eventually was able to improve his organizational skills and eventually get on to the Dean’s list. But another question is how did Montel go from a nonverbal child to valedictorian? Did it happen by accident, did he grow out of it? No, he still is considered Autistic but again, according to the article “Montel was diagnosed at Georgetown University Medical Center when he was 2½ years old, his mother said, and referred to an infants and toddlers program in Prince George’s County. The program worked on Montel’s motor skills, speech and sensory skills.”
So Montel had a multimodal program that helped him along with family and school support.
If everyone just accepted the diagnosis and did nothing to help Montel, he would not be where he is today. But my thought is, could more have been done? Could even more improvement in these two young men been achieved? I spend most of my time now traveling around the world or in my New York office working with kids, adolescents and even adults with Autism. Most of which are nonverbal. I have spent the last 30 years researching Autism to understand what is happening in the brain and if and how that can be changed. These two young men are proof that the autistic brain can change through intervention and support. I believe that with better understanding even better results can be achieved. This is what I am seeing in virtually all the kids I work with. They are all improving and over the past year and a half or more of these kids are speaking. To me, there is nothing more important that I could do with my life and I will continue to improve our understanding through research and our interventions . I will say it again, many argue that we should just accept people with Autism and leave them alone. I believe we should absolutely accept them but it is clear that giving help is also something that can make a big difference and they and their families deserve that choice.