Several weeks after Pam Gertz began a nationwide search for the ideal city for her 21-year-old son Braden, who has autism spectrum disorder, she found it — Bloomington, Indiana.
Gertz, who lives with her husband in Akron, Ohio, said she was impressed that Bloomington has two colleges — Indiana University and Ivy Tech where Braden could pursue a degree in early childhood education.
She was also excited that B-Town had a College Internship Program, a national private organization with sites across the country that offer support services to college students with Asperger’s or other learning differences.
“The College Internship Program has a great location close to campus,” Gertz said. “There are College Internship Programs in other towns, but most are sequestered 15 to 20 miles away from campus.”
But for Gertz, the clincher was the fact that Bloomington has the IU Swim Club, a group of 120 swimmers ranging from rank beginners to former state champs. Braden loves swimming, having been co-captain of his high school swim team in Akron.
Since coming to Bloomington 18 months ago, Braden has been an active member of the swim club, which has regular practices and social outings and competes against other college club teams in home and away meets.
“The swim club has been a wonderful experience for Braden,” Gertz said. “The people on the club have been so gracious and welcoming, and have taught him so much about navigating life on campus.” Indeed, when Braden is asked what his life would be like without the IU Swim Club, his smiling visage melts into a look of deep concern.
“I would miss the swimming,” he says. “And I would miss my friends.”
Kara Lasher, a student adviser at the College Internship Program that offers support services to 22 college students who have Asperger’s syndrome or other learning differences, said Braden’s involvement with the team has helped him learn how to better relate to others.
“Social interaction is one of the greatest deficits for people who are on the autism spectrum,” she said. “The fact that Braden is now so comfortable at the swim club is amazing. His participation with the club has really helped him progress socially.” Swim club president Alex Peirce said since she first met Braden 18 months ago, he has slowly but steadily spread his social wings.
“He’s much more engaged and outgoing now,” she said. “He used to just answer questions with a yes or no, but now he’s always asking questions himself, wanting to know what you thought of practice or what you are doing that night. It’s been really cool to watch the transformation.”
She said Braden’s sunny disposition is now in full bloom. “He’s such a joy to have on the team,” she said. “He’s very positive and friendly — always talking to somebody.” Bill Ramos, the club’s adviser and coach, concurs. “He’s very outgoing and always asks everyone how their day is going,” he said. “He’s very much a part of the team.”
Braden competes in breaststroke, freestyle and relay events. He doesn’t care if he finishes first or last.
“When he climbs out of the pool, he always has a big smile on his face,” Peirce said. “The goal of the club is not to win, but to provide an opportunity to continue swimming, build relationships, and have a great time.”
Braden lives with a roommate, also a College Internship Program client, in Smallwood Apartments. When not swimming, he stays busy going to classes at Ivy Tech, where he is working toward an associate’s degree in early childhood education.
“He hopes to transfer next year into IU and pursue a degree in early childhood education,” Gertz said. “He’d eventually like to work in a pre-school.”
Through the College Internship Program, Gertz has four internships — three at the YMCA, where he works at the front desk, in childcare and with the adaptive swimming class; and one at Head Start, where he reads to children. “Head Start is my favorite job,” he said. “I really like the kids.”