This month, students from schools across the country will be smiling big as they put on the caps and gowns symbolic of their hard work, determination and success. Parents will likely shed some tears as “Pomp and Circumstance” begins to play, and teachers will be reminded of the importance of their daily work with students.
Here, at Anderson Center for Autism, as we prepare to celebrate the graduation of 15 of our students, we take pause to remember the significance of one of the single most important messages we can share with all youth:
“We believe in you.”
For those with autism, a neurological disorder marked by sensory processing, communication, socialization and learning challenges which now impacts 1 in 68, the educational journey often looks quite different than it does for their neurotypical peers. Higher-functioning students who are in mainstream school settings often need special instruction that can make them feel “different.” Other students benefit from a center designed specifically for people with autism, such as Anderson, which can mean full-time residential placement or a day program that takes them away from their neighborhood peers and their families.
Some youth with autism need to work for years to successfully make the eye contact required to understand social cues, a cornerstone of communication. Others may have to spend countless hours to develop the ability to sit still for an academic lesson. Some need to learn how to utilize picture exchange communication systems or sign language to express their wants, needs or questions. What comes naturally to many kids can be a frustrating, ongoing struggle for students with autism.
At Anderson and through our community work, we see just how hard people with autism work to achieve a milestone like graduation. We marvel at their perseverance, and while much of that certainly comes from within, there is something else at work, too. Our students have an entire team of people who genuinely believe in them. Their team designs an educational program specifically for each student to optimize strengths and address deficits, requiring many professionals and family members to come together to make a solid commitment to their success. This takes enthusiasm, passion, compassion and patience; the team is wholeheartedly on the journey with these students. Their families, their therapists, their teachers and staff — every person who works to maximize their potential — is sending students the message that leads to the confidence and self-worth required to meet with success: “I believe in you.” There are moments when you can see that students have internalized that message, and there is no doubt that it helps catapult them to the next level, time and again.
As we all send congratulatory wishes to the graduates in our lives, may we remember the importance of that message — not just on this exciting occasion, but in the years to come as well. Congratulations, graduates. We believe in you.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism.” Visit andersoncenterforautism.org