Saturday, December 29, 2007

"My Storm"

Although this blog is about multiple/severe disabilities I know a fair share of my readers work with/live with/love learners who have PDD (including Autism and Asperger's) and other learning disabilities with higher incidence than my student's disabilities. With that in mind I want to share with you all a draft of my young friend's college application essay.

This young lady is seventeen years old and a senior at an arts magnet high school. I have known her since she was seven and I was the camp director at her summer program. She has not had an easy go at life. She originally was diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disability and Anxiety/Depression (at about age nine or ten).

At her last three year evaluation she scored perfectly on the IQ tests in almost all areas because she has an eidetic memory and had take the test several times before, (she also has perfect state test scores and near perfect SAT scores even though she fell asleep during the test) so the evaluator says she no longer qualifies as NVD and (although he was not qualified to make this diagnosis in my humble opinion) labeled her as Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. Since then she has struggled with increased depression and anxiety plus a totally new case of school phobia.

However, she cannot be summed up by listing her educational achievements (or lack thereof). No one talks about her compassion and uncanny ability to make friends even with unfriendly people in her special education evaluations. No one talks about how she has taught herself Japanese and how to draw like a professional without ever taking an art class (she majors in drama). She is without a doubt one of the sweetest and kindest teenagers I have ever met. Knowing her (and sitting through her IEPs, evaluations and doctors appointments) has permanently changed how I write IEPs and evaluations. My standard educational evaluation is 10-20 pages long versus the usual page and half to three pages I see from other sped teachers because I know how much it means to include all of the the student in what I say.

This wonderful young woman is in the midst of applying to college. Her teachers told her to write a college essay that explained her poor grades. Here is her draft (she is still working on it, but her issues with writing and criticism make it tough to do more than a little at a time unless someone is sitting with her and supporting her - and that someone right now is me). Long intro, short, here it is:

My friend recommended I call this “My Journey through Asperger’s/NLD”. I don’t know if I want to say “my journey through”. I always feel weird and claustrophobic and boxed-in when I read books or essays or stories about, say, Temple Grandin or whoever, their “journey through” autism or Asperger’s. Saying it like that makes it sound like you’re a ship at sea, trying to sail through a storm, and you came from clear skies and hope to reach clear skies ahead. It makes it sound like I have cancer or something, and I know what it’s like to be “normal”. Maybe I was born in the storm. Maybe I like the storm, with the wind and the rain, and even the thunder and lightning too. I mean, I do have strengths that are mine because of the Asperger’s/NVLD. It might be that a book written by a person with a different fixation than my own is simply boring because I don’t agree with their fixation (dear god I never want to read about cattle chutes ever again in my life), but fascinating to other “normal” people because of the “Oooh, this person ‘thinks in pictures’, that’s fascinating” effect. It might just be that I don’t like reading about my own weaknesses. It might be that every person is different, and what’s accurate for one isn’t accurate at all for another. Maybe every storm is unique. Maybe “normal” people have their own storms. ~

Let me tell you about my storm, and also the strength I have gained from it. Nobody agrees on whether I have Asperger’s Syndrome, Non-Verbal Learning Disability, both, or neither. Everybody agrees that I have some level of attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. I have difficulties with social interactions which make me feel uncomfortable so I avoid some social interactions. Often I don’t know social rules in new situations unless someone tells me. I struggle with some aspects of self-care and self-esteem. I am a perfectionist to a fault and have some trouble with accepting even well meaning criticism, but more trouble accepting praise. I get bored easily and my attention wanders. Sometimes I find remembering things like appointments very arduous. On the other hand my strengths include the ability to ace standardized tests, being compassionate to all people and animals, unending passion about certain things, eidetic memory, a love of organizing and categorizing items and being very friendly. I also find learning languages, science and math to come naturally. Most of all I have the strength to grow and change, but sometimes I lack perspective on how “far I have come.”

In many ways I am completely blind to how much I have grown and changed, but in some ways I am aware. My perceptions of things change so fast, in a period of months my opinions can completely change. For example if I read a story or an essay I can think it is wonderful and a few months later I can’t believe I thought that. When things like that happen I realize how much I have grown. I look back at some of the things I have done and I can’t believe myself. I can recognize now that it wasn’t the right thing to do or wasn’t appropriate. I am growing so rapidly; unfortunately, my grades don’t reflect that. I know that I am more intelligent than I was last year, but my grades don’t show that. I can barely recognize myself from freshman or sophomore year. I like how I can so rapidly grow because then I know I am making progress.

I am more aware of things now. I know more social rules (and follow them), even if many still don’t make sense to me. I struggle with how different I am from what the “norm” is, but I know that most teenagers feel that way. I have had to learn things most people already know just by being alive. Once I do learn life lessons, I sometimes have trouble translating them into action.

I know I am ready to try to take action in college. I know my “journey” will continue to be difficult in college. I will have to face my issues with time management and perfectionism more directly. I also know that if I am more engaged in my course work, if I am studying things I am passionate about like Japanese language and culture and biological and chemical science it will be easier for me. Like most people, I do better when I care deeply about what I am learning.

My hope is that by attending (insert college name here) I will continue to grow and blossom into the person I know I can be.

In her description of what it is like to live with this kind of challenge she hits the nail right on the head, doesn't she? For the record she says she doesn't think in pictures, she thinks in shapes, but not the kind of shapes most people know.

P.S. That is the Japanese character for hope.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed that young woman's essay. I remember writing my college application essay in a similar fashion, also emphasizing how I viewed myself in light of my neurology. Her self-accepting outlook is an extremely important trait for both a successful college student and a successful self-advocate. If she's so inclined, I know we'd love to hear from her at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.


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