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She’s Got High Hopes: The Long Road From Middle to High School

This post is from Amy Gravino, a member of our Communications Committee here at Autism Speaks. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. 

Freshman year.

The gym locker room is a bustle of activity. It’s the first day back, and already my classmates are chattering excitedly. The metallic hinges squeak as locker doors open and close, and my ears are ringing. 

This is it. Ninth grade! This is the year everything’s going to get better. Things will be different.

I repeat the thoughts in my head like a mantra, shutting out the din around me as I pull my shirt over my head to change into my gym clothes. Turning away from my locker, I’m now facing the brown wooden bench in the center, and as I glance up at the scene before me, a curious sight reveals itself:

I am surrounded by a sea of white, lacy bras, each encasing two particular fleshy objects that hadn’t been there before. The bras are everywhere I look, some with thin straps and others thick, and a dizziness overtakes me, the volume in the locker room almost deafening, until finally I look down at my own gangly frame and see it:

A white, shapeless undershirt.

So, I was right: Things were different. But some things were painfully still the same.

Eighth grade graduation was a disaster. There in the auditorium sat my parents and grandparents, and more than anything, I wanted them to be proud of me. But I soon discovered that I would not be receiving any awards that night. The devastation I felt, coupled with how absolutely convinced I was that I was a failure, led me to have a meltdown, and I refused to take my place on stage with the rest of my class.

Yet, despite all of this and failing to meet the expectations I’d set for myself, my resolve remained unflappable, and I was optimistic about what high school would bring. I imagined that I might finally fit in, both with my peers and into the beautiful clothes that adorned the pages of my teen magazines.  

Maybe I would have a seat in the cafeteria, a place where I belonged at last. Maybe I would look at the long, skinny lockers in the hallways and see my own gracefulness reflected. Maybe this girl on the autism spectrum, so tiny and so far behind everyone else, would—somehow, in the magical world of high school—finally blossom.

September.

I made my way to class one morning, trying to stave off a headache from the pungent hot rubber smell of the school bus seats. The laughing and commotion of the halls was too familiar, and the weight of the full purple backpack tucked over my shoulders suddenly felt even heavier.

And behind me, tracing every step, was Mrs. Corallo, the blonde-haired, cardigan sweater-wearing, one-to-one aide that my IEP had apparently insisted I have. Her job was to silently guide my frail form to its intended destination, but her presence shattered the rosy, perfect high school existence I longed for and instead threw me back into one simple reality:

Ninth grade is the year after eighth grade; nothing more, nothing less.

Academics were never what I worried about. I welcomed the more rigorous challenges of high school work (except math), and I joined the Academic Bowl team in the hope that my intellect would earn me a place somewhere just above the very bottom of the high school hierarchy.

But as I stood in that bra-infested locker room, walked into that bustling cafeteria with not a “Come sit here!” gesture in sight, what mattered most was not the grades on my report card, but the endless succession of bright red “F”s that I felt I had earned in everything else.

High school came and everyone changed. Everyone grew, and I was left behind. This was what I saw and believed for a long time, but it is only now—many years later—that I realize the truth: They all changed into what they thought they had to be. I have now changed and grown into what I want to be, and I did it on my own terms and in my own time.

Maybe, then, I wasn’t left behind at all.

Maybe the dream my junior high mind had envisioned for high school was just a dream that needed a little longer to come true. 

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.