This is a post by Autism Speaks Executive Vice President of Programs and Services Lisa Goring. Below Lisa shares her experience watching her 17-year-old son, Andrew, walk with his high school graduating class last week.
On June 28th, my son Andrew had the opportunity to walk with the Class of 2014 at our local high school graduation. Although Andrew’s needs dictate that he will receive services until he is 21, we wanted this graduation ceremony to be shared with the classmates with whom he has grown up. We are fortunate in that Andrew has spent the past 12 years in school with the same classmates who have all embraced him as a full and equal part of our community. So he decided that he wanted to walk with his class at graduation. It was important to him – and to us – that he and his friends share in this celebration of all of their achievements. They had started out together all those years ago and they should walk as a class at graduation.
Andrew has been a valued part of the Class of 2014’s community since they were all in Kindergarten together. The time spent together both in and outside of the classroom afforded Andrew indispensable opportunities to develop relationships with many of his classmates. These relationships – perhaps just as important as all that he has learned in the classroom – have been crucial to Andrew’s success and happiness. They have become his “natural supports” and have greatly enhanced his quality of life during his school years. These relationships will likely continue to sustain his happiness going forward.
The morning of the ceremony was a difficult one for Andrew, who was visibly anxious amidst the long buildup to that evening’s festivities. But as soon as he stepped into the processional line in his cap and gown as part of the Class of 2014, a proud smile beamed across his face. He carefully kept his place in line and found his spot in the bleachers next to his classmate Emma – the very same friend who sat alongside him during their Moving Up ceremony in 6th grade. Andrew pumped his fist and flashed the thumbs-up sign to the families in the audience as he sat in the hot sun and listened to speeches delivered by friends and administrators. When it came time to rise with his row to leave the bleachers and collect his diploma, Emma turned to Andrew and held out her hand to help him down the steep steps. (Those can be challenging for Andrew.)
As he waited for his name to be called, Andrew looked very much at ease, aside from his excited grin. The announcement of his name, “Andrew Goring,” was met with cheers from his loved ones in the audience, as he marched up to the podium to shake hands and hug administrators and members of the Board of Education, along with an especially big hug for a favorite teacher. When he started to make his way back to his spot in the bleachers, Andrew raised his fist in the air in triumph and smiled broadly at us. As he did this, his classmates on the risers smiled too and many of them clapped and cheered him on. It was a wonderful moment.
In the midst of this excitement, Andrew seemed to be confused as to what to do next. The students had to walk past their seats, get their picture taken by a photographer and then return to their seats. The classmates who had been behind him in line had passed by and were now in front of him. As he turned around and looked for a path back to his seat, another friend named Tara saw that he needed some help. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched Tara leave her seat on the other side of the bleachers and respectfully guide Andrew to the photographer who was waiting to take his picture, before going back to his spot on the bleachers. Andrew was able to once again rely on the natural supports he had cultivated over many years and his classmates supported him with ease.
The next day on Facebook, a classmate named Pranay wrote the following comment on a picture of Andrew in his cap and gown with his fist raised high: “Having known Andrew since I was 8 made us grow closer every year til senior year. Watching Andrew graduate yesterday was one of the coolest and most heart-warming things I have ever seen. Congratulations bud! We did it!!!!”