Autism Spectrum Marcus: Ten Years Later

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as told to Iliana Clift

Years ago I hung a quote by the Roman orator Cicero on Marcus’s bulletin board that said, “The greater the difficulty…the greater the glory.” This quote describes our journey with Marcus quite well. When we first started the NACD program, he hardly had any speech at all. He was extremely sensitive to sounds and textures, didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and wanted everything to be a certain way or he would throw a major tantrum. Little by little, with the assistance of NACD and other support people who came onboard with us, we were able to help Marcus move out of his little world of autism into ours, the real world. By the end of fifth grade he was attending regular education classes without an aide and had come a long way—from a three-year-old who would freak over a fork in the wrong place, to a child functioning comfortably in a typical environment—yet, clearly capable of so much more.*

It would be an understatement to say that the last ten years have been busy. While we climbed the most challenging mountains in the first eleven years of his life, the last decade has also been difficult but incredibly gratifying as well. The growth we’ve seen in Marcus has not happened easily; but implementing the NACD program consistently with discipline and love, along with the help of his speech therapist, his long-time tutor, as well as many others in and outside the school setting during this time, have given us boundless rewards.

After Marcus completed intermediate school, he attended regular classes at the local middle school, then high school. NACD affirmed the importance that it was my responsibility to be the facilitator of my son’s education, and so I worked tirelessly, perhaps even harder than had I actually homeschooled Marcus. At the beginning of each school year, I would first meet with a counselor to help me select teachers who would be willing to work with me and work well with Marcus. Then I would meet with the teachers and present them with a folder of information about Marcus. I would give them everything they needed to know about him—from his little quirks to how he thought. My goal was to facilitate their understanding of who Marcus really was, what his difficulties and strengths were, and also to let them know that as my child’s primary advocate and as a teacher myself, I knew the challenges they faced and that I wanted to partner with them to help them teach my son. I always stressed that our relationship was a partnership and each of us—teacher, parent, and child—had a responsibility in this partnership. Meanwhile, we continued working on the NACD program at home. It was wonderful to have our evaluator track Marcus’s progress and tweak his program as needed. She was one of our greatest cheerleaders. NACD was the perfect place to gain hope and skills to address Marcus’s specific needs.

If I showed you my son’s resume from high school, you would be truly impressed. He was on the honor roll, in the National Honor Society; he was a four-year letterman for Men’s Golf, was a Maroon Maniac (one of the boys who ran the school name in flags across the field when the football team scored), and was awarded “Who’s Who” in World History, Chemistry, Algebra II, and Economics. In his senior year of high school Marcus tied for first place in the district golf tournament and signed to play golf in college. This had been a dream in the making for several years, and we were simply ecstatic.

We are very proud of Marcus! Currently, he is attending a Division II college sixty miles from home on a golf scholarship. He lives alone and drives home on the weekends. (Driving since he was seventeen and only one ticket—can you imagine that?!) At 21 he is six credit hours short of being a junior majoring in business. As a freshman he made Honorable Mention in his college conference, won first place in a tournament, and was named the Outstanding Men’s Golfer of his team for the year. He has a few academic accommodations, but only uses extended time on tests, a word processor for essay exams, and preferential seating. Marcus has made the Dean’s List every semester so far and has worked diligently to be successful in his classes and on the golf course. Yes, it takes him more time, effort, and additional tutoring to achieve what he has; but because of the discipline he developed as a child on an NACD program, he willingly puts in the work necessary to succeed.

The last ten years have not been without challenges, the biggest of which has been a Tourette syndrome diagnosis. As he was growing up, Marcus always had subtle tics, but they weren’t all that noticeable and didn’t bother him too much. But then, with the onset of puberty, the tics exploded. Although the tics are much better now, he must work to control them, especially when he plays golf so as not to bother other players or his own game. Naturally, when he is stressed the tics are worse. College in general is challenging and competing athletically on the college level is too; so to help control the tics he takes a mild medication in addition to implementing a few NACD strategies. Living on his own at college has also been helpful in coping with the tics because he can “let down” without having to worry about other people.

We are pleased that Marcus has grown into a sweet-spirited, handsome young man with a tremendous work ethic. I can’t help but think back to when he was three and we had just received the Autism diagnosis. The last thing I would think while drifting off to sleep was, “I have an autistic son! What am I going to do?” That was also the first thing that would come to my mind in the morning when I woke up. The future looked so scary. It didn’t help that a respected developmental pediatrician at a renowned children’s facility didn’t offer us much hope either when he projected that Marcus would possibly be mentally eight years old at the age of sixteen and suggested we teach him sign language to communicate. I don’t think so! NACD has given Marcus so much more than the ability to communicate.

For us the key to moving our child with autism forward has been consistency in expectations and discipline. When we first started with NACD, I wanted to see immediate results, instant benefits, and dramatic changes and it was frustrating when these took time. However, I can tell you as the parent of a child who had severe challenges, that after much work, five words strung together in a sentence was a dramatic improvement and was cause for celebration. Perhaps the most empowering thing the NACD evaluator said to me was to focus on input, input, input. “If you focus on input, the desired output will come.” That was liberating for me, because in this society we get too hung up on measuring output too soon. As a teacher, I see it in education with constant emphasis on testing performance, and I am confident that had I relied on the early testing on Marcus and gone with just what was available to him at school, Marcus would not be where he is today.

Marcus has come so very, very far in becoming the wonderfully unique man that we know. And the amazing thing is he is still growing. While he is comfortable with the person that he is, NACD has taught Marcus that improvement towards excellence is always possible. Just as he is a dedicated athlete who strives to perfect his golf game, he continues to work on bettering himself socially as well as educationally. NACD has been a key component in Marcus’s life as he continues to move forward towards independence. Although the journey is not over, the potential for him to have great future is there.

* For a previous testimonial on Marcus, go to: http://www.nacd.org/autism-communication-disorder-a-journey-with-marcus/