An Ode to Autism – Successful Student Teaches a Lesson
Finally some good news for a change. Last year one of my long-time clients graduated from high school and received a national award for this essay. I’ve been holding it for just a time like this, when we all need something positive. It’s one of the best things I’ve read on the risks and rewards experienced by children with disabilities:
It changed me. I finally felt that someone “got me.” I wasn’t an alien just because I have autism. I am so much more than my autism: I’m an artist, I’m a musician, I’m a student and I’m a person.
My name is Sara and that moment came as I sat in the audience at Wicked, The Musical. Elphaba Thropp was a character who was discriminated against because her skin was green. Elphaba was strong in her beliefs and not afraid to express herself. When she sang the song, “Defying Gravity,” it was Elphaba’s declaration that the world is not as fantastic as we expect it to be; sometimes we have to go against what’s “right” to do what we truly believe.
I started out in the Magnet School program at Chestnut Street/Primary School and it was the best possible beginning for me. I was in multi-aged classrooms in a small cozy school. Like Elphaba when she was young, I had security and support. From there I went to Horizons-on-the-Hudson. That’s when musical theater became a part of my life and, in 6th grade; I was able to participate in the school’s Opera Company.
South Junior High was my lowest point. Because I had an IEP, I was treated like scum, not only by my peers, but by teachers and administrators.
I have been diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder. One day in Junior High I will always remember as the worst day of my life. I was a Girl Scout back then and was delivering my Girl Scout cookie orders to my teachers. When I went into my English class with the cookies, a few of my classmates asked to buy cookies. I said, “I’ll pay you tomorrow.” What I meant to say was “you can pay me tomorrow.” The kids thought it was hilarious that I had said something so dumb. So, they laughed at me. Soon, the entire class was laughing and a few of them shouted, “What a retard.” The worst part of this story is that the teacher was in the room and did NOTHING to stop it.
After that day, I drifted into a depression and tried to focus all my attention on my music. My mom fought throughout my eighth grade year to get me into Honors classes. I got into Honors classes by 9th grade and I stayed there. I became an example to the school district of what a kid with an IEP could do. I defied gravity!
At Newburgh Free Academy, I discovered photography and fashion design. I took Advanced Placement social studies courses; college level courses!! And I did great in them! Teachers no longer saw me as an IEP student; they even told me that I had great potential! I realized that I could do anything I wanted and that I could educate people about what autism really looks like! My skin may not be green like Elphaba’s but autism was almost that obvious.
The moment I heard Elphaba sing “defying gravity,” I realized that, like her character, I had to learn to not be afraid of what made me “different.” I have autism, but autism is not who I am. I am Sara and I’m an artist, a musician, a student and a person who defied gravity.
My education began at the Primary Magnet School @ Chestnut Street after which I attended Horizons-on-the-Hudson Elementary. I sang in school chorus from 3rd grade on and, in 6th grade I was in the Opera Company. I was a Girl Scout up until the 7th grade and received the Girl Scout Bronze Award. At South Jr. High, I was in the ASCEND program, West Point Mentoring program, French Club and on the Yearbook committee.
Since starting NFA, I have been in the Key Club, French Club, Acapella Chorus, Photo Club and Fashion Club and have maintained a 90.13 average over the last two years. This year our Photo Club assisted the Newburgh Animal Shelter in raising awareness of abandoned animals in our area. I also participated in community service projects through the Key Club and Temple Beth Jacob and, in my Junior year, I received the Triple C award for Character, Courage & Commitment.
I plan to attend Dutchess Community College in September as a Music major after which I hope to attend SUNY New Paltz and major in Music Therapy. Since my own diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder has so impacted my life, I am determined to educate others about autism, music, special education and the potential of all children to learn and express themselves.
Thank you Sara. You are truly a profile in courage and an inspiration to us all!