Graduation season is upon us, and to every student celebrating this big life moment: congratulations! May you apply the lessons learned both in and out of the classroom in ways that fulfill you for many years to come. You really are at the very beginning of a journey that can be anything you want it to be, and all of us who are part of your extended community are excited to see what you do.
As we honor the achievements of all of our graduating students, I encourage people to remember that this milestone has extra meaning for those with learning differences and/or developmental disabilities. We hope that you will join us in applauding them in a big way.
Consider this: children with special needs often begin their work toward this achievement before the age of 2. While most toddlers are running freely at the playground, those with disabilities are likely engaged in countless hours of occupational, speech, and physical therapies so that they can work on building skills that came naturally to their peers.
And when they make their way to classrooms, they’re often accompanied by a special educator who works with them intensively right through their school years, adding enrichment activities and supplemental training to whatever curriculum is already required of them. Or, it might be around that time in their childhoods when their families discover that a full-time residential school is the best option, which means that these young people have to tap into the remarkable courage necessary to embark on a new experience and living situation – long before some of their classmates have even attended a slumber party overnight.
Then there’s puberty. Although tough for every kid, there’s no question that it presents greater difficulties for a pre-teen who already struggles with social cues and processing of sensory stimuli. Not to mention the fact that this time period typically comes with greater academic demands, which grow exponentially in the years that follow. As if processing information wasn’t already enough to leave them depleted, imagine what it must be like to try to process even heavier material that expands daily in breadth and depth. Teens with learning differences may have to spend hours on the same assignment that a neurotypical peer was able to complete in 20 minutes flat.
At Anderson Center for Autism, our students have even more severe challenges than those who remain in “mainstream” school settings. But we see them persevere in a way that fills us with total awe – day after day, month after month, and year after year. They demonstrate an unwavering commitment to learning and a truly extraordinary work ethic. They find ways to navigate challenges and in some cases, end up overcoming some of them. Even in the midst of a global pandemic when they’ve been isolated from their own family members for months at a time.
This month, we will be celebrating all graduates and their unique accomplishments, regardless of disabilities and abilities. Everyone has their own journey – their own challenges, their own joys, and their own tears. But here at Anderson Center for Autism, we’ll tip our caps to students with disabilities in a special way, ever mindful of the fact that this may not have been a ‘given’ for any of them had it not been for unimaginable perseverance that will inspire us for decades to come.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, located in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism.” Visit andersoncenterforautism.org to learn more.