Tonight, I will be attending a graduation ceremony that will be like no other I have attended. Because of the pandemic, students will be required to wear masks and sit six feet apart, and families in attendance will be limited to five, socially distancing themselves from other families. But there is another reason this graduation will be unique for me. Having been a school counselor, I have attended over 30 commencement ceremonies, and I beamed with pride at them all – especially the six in which my own children and grandchildren participated. I recall each time how ecstatic and proud I was at each of my own three graduations and identified with the joy these grads felt at this lifetime accomplishment that held so much promise. But tonight, even with the pared down event and no grand celebration to follow, I will be prouder and probably more emotional than I believe I have ever been before, because tonight I will witness my grandson, Jake, pick up a piece of paper that took 14 years of tears, determination, and pure grit to achieve.
Jake was five years old when he came to live in our home. I knew, even when he was a baby, that something was just not normal with him. For one thing, he was so hyperactive he just could not sit still, but I noticed behaviors that were beyond his constant, frenzied activity. He didn’t seem to bond with anybody, even the people closest to him. He rarely smiled. He was abnormally obsessed with certain objects. The first we noticed was fans. For years he was fascinated with every fan he saw – pointing out features that we never even thought about, from the mesmerizing blades that whirred hypnotically, to the screws that held the whole thing together. When he was a preschooler, my daughter had to bring him home early from trick or treating because he insisted on rushing inside each home they visited to inspect the ceiling fans he spied from the front door. While most young boys like to play with the most current popular toy figures, he was absorbed in a defunct ceiling fan we found in the attic. His obsessions changed from time to time – toy cars, toilets, electric outlets, door knobs (for months we found door knobs everywhere, even one in the freezer) anything that could be taken apart and put back together – and he was ingenious in his abilities to visualize and construct things in half the time it would have taken any of us.
When he turned five, we all knew he would never be able to focus or sit still long enough to attend school, so, since he had an August birthday, we decided to wait a year. I was determined to use that year to find help. He was not only systematically dismantling our house, he seemed to take joy in provoking us with his destructive behavior, which I realize now was his way of trying to get our attention, the only way his constantly shifting thoughts knew how to deal with the chaos inside his head. When I found a center in Dallas that agreed to evaluate him, the whole family wept with joy when we gathered together with his evaluation team who said he could be helped. Though I had told them I thought he might have autism, their conclusion was that his ADHD was so severe, he was unable to notice the normal social cues that teach children how to interact with society. They prescribed medication and therapy. I still remember vividly the first day he took the medication. It was a miracle!! So, we started him in kindergarten at midterm, and he was assigned a marvelous special education team who loved him, taught him to read, and saw him all the way through fifth grade.
But something was still not right. His obsessions, lack of social maturity, and eccentric behaviors, like only being able to go to sleep while rocking his head back and forth, convinced me he had autism. When he was nine, I asked the school to do an evaluation, which came to the conclusion that he was just “quirky,” because he socialized with the other children in his class (whom he had known for five years). But I knew his behaviors matched the ones described in my vast research, despite the fact that the school would not recognize his autism and teach him accordingly. Looking on the Internet for a place where he could interact with other kids like him, I came across a nearby group called Awesome on the Spectrum and met an angel named Darla Hill. Darla, whose own son has Asperger’s, had started this group as a way for kids to learn social skills and just have fun. Through the years, she has obtained certification to support youths like Jake, helping them acquire skills that will lead to an independent life. Darla is a force to be reckoned with. She sees the potential in these kids and is determined they will become self-sustaining, productive adults, and she continues to work with Jake even today. She is a gift from God.
Jake continued to see a doctor once a month for his medication, and then, when he was 12, the therapist who saw him said she was unable to connect with him and recommended an autism evaluation. The doctor’s diagnosis – classic Asperger’s (high functioning autism) – finally got it right, just a few months before he entered a new school and a new phase in his life, the dreaded pothole in life’s road … middle school. But, to my surprise, Jake seemed to adjust well. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I smelled a rat. When the vice principal called to tell me that they were moving him from a math class providing modifications on his level to a regular math class because of the new regulations on state testing, I came home with steam escaping my ears to release the pressure building up in my brain. How can you put a kid in a higher math level in the middle of the year when he hasn’t had the foundation to do the work? I had heard a very knowledgeable advocate couple, Debra and Mike Holum, speak at one of Darla’s AOTS meetings, and I immediately hired them to advocate for Jake. After a thorough review of Jake’s special ed records, the advocates had reported that, basically, Jake was sitting in the classroom, doing pretty much nothing, and he was being passed anyway. The school and district were breaking the law in numerous ways and didn’t even know it. So, after another 50-page evaluation and numerous marathon ARD meetings attended by up to 17 people, Jake’s autism was addressed, and he was served appropriately. The months that followed were excruciatingly painful for all of us, especially Jake, who didn’t like the accountability now thrust upon him. Meltdowns were a daily occurrence.
In the four years since, Jake has matured beyond my wildest dreams – thanks to the help of Darla, the Holums, his therapist, Harold, and the school personnel who have lovingly pushed him to succeed for four years. He still has a long way to go to achieve independence. He does rash things like jumping on his skateboard, losing control, and crashing into a moving car. He’s not ready to handle the responsibility of driving or balancing his own checking account yet. He still has totally unrealistic expectations, like thinking graduation from high school and turning 18 meant he could automatically go to California to pursue a career of skateboarding and acting (we’ve all talked him down from that one). But focusing on and loving his career specialty in high school, digital media technology, has given him a goal to work toward.
A lot of people have failed Jake through the years, starting with his own father who deserted him at six months old, but a lot of them have fought for him as well. One of the last things my mother said to my stepdad before she slipped into unconsciousness before she died in 2008 was, “Take care of Jake.” And we all have – and will – for as long as he needs us to. But I am convinced Jake will someday be able to live on his own, to have a family, to live a happy life. Tonight’s graduation ceremony is a giant step in that direction. Congratulations, Jake Sisco, my beloved grandson, on a job well done.