By Sarah Blackwelder Williams – Reproduced with permission from Exceptional Parent Magazine
Devon is a bright, engaging 22 year old with a proud sense of accomplishment. He believes that while we all encounter obstacles during our lives, these obstacles can be overcome with motivation and perseverance. Devon says we simply need to identify what we value, set goals and move beyond the obstacles.
Devon has been faced with multiple obstacles since childhood. He grew up in San Jose, California with his parents and two younger sisters. Devon began seeing a psychiatrist at age nine and was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school. He had difficulty making friends and concentrating in school. Devon’s elementary and high school years were challenging. He felt isolated and misunderstood. As a teenager, he was correctly diagnosed with a combined diagnosis of ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, a learning difference on the autism spectrum that disrupts the brain’s ability to process and organize information. It can be difficult for individuals with Asperger’s to interpret social cues, interact and maintain relationships.
After finishing high school at a private California school for children with special educational needs, Devon decided to attend college. He was accepted at Florida Tech in Melbourne, Florida and moved across the country to begin his college education. But college life quickly became challenging for Devon. “At Florida Tech, I did not know how to ask for help or advocate for myself, so I didn’t receive any support for my learning differences,” Devon stated. “I became quite stressed. I couldn’t focus and developed terrible stomach aches.”
When it became evident that Devon was not going to be successful at Florida Tech, he returned home to California and attended a local community college. Without support, Devon continued to struggle with time management and motivation issues. He withdrew from peers and was not able to complete his class work.
But Devon did not give up. “I knew that if I had the right opportunity to improve myself, I could take advantage of that opportunity,” he stated. “I just needed the right environment to succeed.”
After two unsuccessful attempts at college, Devon’s parents enrolled him in The College Internship Program (CIP) in Berkeley, California. CIP is a post high school support program that helps young adults with learning differences transition to college and independence. At CIP Devon received a tutor, an advisor, a therapist and a social skills instructor to help him navigate daily college life. Finally, he was in a supportive environment and receiving the assistance he needed to be successful.
“My experience at CIP gave me opportunities to function socially,” Devon commented.” This is what I really needed. The staff taught me how to be sensitive to others needs and issues. I received good advice socially and academically and also learned how to be organized,” he continued. “I now have a group of friends for the first time in my life.”
Initially, Devon’s mother Erin was not sure if CIP was the right fit for her son. “He had received inappropriate treatment for so many years that we weren’t sure about the right path for Devon,” said Erin. “He was pretty entrenched in his negative self-image,” she continued. “But while he was at this program, we were able to watch Devon advocate for himself and transform into someone who accepts himself for who he is.”
Erin believes that because of time constraints, public school instructors typically teach to the middle of the bell curve and that many teachers don’t accept students for their unique strengths. “It’s important for parents to know that they are not alone with their child who is different,” stated Erin. “There are so many bright, unique kids like Devon out there. Parents need to recognize these differences and advocate for their children. The resources are there, but you need to seek them out. Parents need to be open to trying different things,” she continued.
Over the past decade, the first big wave of children with autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome have begun to transition from high school to college. Many have trouble with this transition and fall into a downward spiral. Like Devon, some attempt the typical college experience but encounter difficulties on a variety of levels. CIP was originally founded in 1984 to help young adults like Devon learn the skills necessary for independence. Tutoring sessions, social mentoring outings and executive functioning classes supplement student’s regular college schedule and help them adjust to the demands of college life. With CIP’s support, Devon gained important independent living skills and a positive self-image.
“Our staff saw a very anxious Devon arrive in 2008,” commented Janet Miller, Program Director at CIP’s Berkeley Center. “He was detached from peers and fearful. His two years at CIP culminated this year at our Convocation ceremony with an insightful, inspiring speech about reaching out, leaving the past behind and courage,” she continued. “He left us all feeling very good about the work we do.”
Advisors are assigned to each student when they arrive and help with problem solving, self advocacy and budgeting. “When Devon first arrived here, we weren’t sure he would last a week,” stated Student Advisor Jennifer Woo. “But over time, he became better at expressing his needs and recognized the power of his voice.”
CIP also provides local community internships for all students and social activities are a required part of the rich curriculum. For example, students gather weekly for a potluck dinner known as ‘Grill and Chill.” Devon is known for his culinary skills and his infamous “pizza burger” creation; an entrée which was first introduced for his peers. To make a pizza burger, you take four pounds of hamburger and inject it with cheese and layer with bacon,” Devon says.” Then you put frozen pizzas on the top and bottom and bake it until it’s golden. It looks like a giant burger and everyone loves it.”
A whiz at computers and math, Devon is interested in the field of network systems administration. He would like to work as a network technician and manage computer hardware. Devon’s current goals are to do well with his academics and to experience life independently. Despite his learning disability which some might consider an obstacle, Devon has persevered. Armed with the skills he learned at CIP, Devon is now motivated to finish college and pursue a career. Devon and his friend Sheryl recently completed CIP’s Berkeley program and have moved into an apartment in Northern California’s Bay Area. They are continuing their college education and plan to graduate in two years. The two plan to invite friends over for dinner and socializing. Pizza burgers will undoubtedly be on the menu.
*Reproduced with permission from Exceptional Parent Magazine