Article: One ASD kid is going to an Ivy League and the other is getting an Athletic Scholarship :)
Outsmarting autism: Amherst woman's determination pays off for her sons
Saturday, June 30, 2012
AMHERST - Gabriel Rodriguez of Amherst got a 650 on the math SAT last spring, the first time he took it, and he thinks he can do better. The 16-year-old has been invited to a science program in September at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Cambridge university he'd like to attend. He thinks his grade point average is around 3.7, but he isn't sure.
"It's something near that; my mom has it memorized," he says. "A 4.0 GPA is her goal."
His brother, Gustavo, 15, hopes to win an athletic scholarship so he can attend college. He's been on the Amherst Regional High School ice hockey and track teams, and plans to go out for football in the fall.
These achievements don't seem remarkable for an Amherst teen, until you consider this: Gabriel didn't speak until he was 3 and Gustavo was silent until he was 6. Both were diagnosed on the autism spectrum as toddlers. A psychiatrist in Alabama, where the family lived at the time, advised their mother, Indira Kris, a single mother, to put Gabriel in an institution.
"It was devastating to hear that," she said in a recent interview at their home. "The doctor said to forget about him, that I was young and could restart my life."
Autism is a disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the normal development of social and communication skills. It is manifested in many degrees - hence the term autism spectrum.
Gustavo has high-functioning autism, Kris said, while Gabriel's condition is often called Asperger's syndrome. The two boys can be reluctant to make eye contact while speaking, and can be socially awkward, Kris said. They have trouble dealing with loud behavior, can be uneasy in crowds and are often nervous around people they don't know, she said.
But she sees their orientation as just a different way of behaving.
"I'm a PC and my child with autism is a Mac, and what we do in the middle is what helps us communicate," she said.
Gabriel puts it this way: "I'm not into everything that everyone else seems to be into."
Kris, 42, is a native of Puerto Rico. She works as an English as a Second Language teacher in Chicopee, but until three years ago she was a full-time advocate for her children. While living in Alabama, she researched federal laws on special education and decided that Massachusetts was the best place for her family to live. She had a cousin in Amherst, so she moved here in 1999.
Kris focused on getting her sons the educational services they needed, such as one-to-one paraprofessionals in elementary school, speech and occupational therapy, and directed study halls.
"I didn't take no for an answer," she said. "When doors closed, I kept banging on them. When I tried to enroll Gabriel in preschool, I was told there was no space for him. I lied and said I had a lawyer, and the next day he was in preschool."
She got to know Superintendent Maria Geryk when Geryk was running the district's special education programs. "I could cry with her and she was always there," Kris said.
Administrators and School Committee members who came and went in Amherst over the past decade became familiar with her requests, such as more speech therapy for Gustavo or exemptions from middle school gym classes. Secretaries knew her by her first name. She was at the schools every day, she said.
"The main thing is that I was heard," she said. "Whether things were done my way or not, that's another story, but being heard is what mattered most."
Although the schools were usually accommodating, Kris said, she never got her sons the in-school laptops she requested.
At home, she said, she was a demanding mother who pushed her sons to work hard and never underestimated what they could accomplish. She monitored what the boys watched on TV, put strict limits on their computer time, and refused to accept grades lower than what she thought they were capable of, she said.
Gradually, pockets of the community opened their doors to the two brothers who seemed just a little different.
Gabriel started singing with the Young People's Choir and swimming with the Amherst Tritons when he was in fourth grade. The Amherst Hockey Association started working with Gustavo six years ago, and last year he was named rookie of the year on the Amherst Regional track team.
"They supported their quirkiness and gave them what they needed, until they could be integrated into the groups," Kris said.
Gustavo is strong and has a lot of natural athletic ability, said Sean Obadashian, the ARHS ice hockey coach. He has an excellent work ethic that rubs off on his teammates, the coach said.
"Tavo is very intelligent, knows a lot about the game and wants to play all the time," he said. "He gets along with all the kids, and gives all his effort. He asks a lot of questions about the game, so I know he's paying attention."
Keith McFarland was Gabriel's ninth-grade English teacher and has been his swimming coach for the past two years.
"I treat him just like any other kid, with some minor accommodation in the classroom," McFarland said.
"He's the kind of kid who will volunteer to do anything, and that's what you want. Swimming is a good sport for kids with mild autism, because you're part of a team but it's mostly an individual thing."
McFarland called Gabriel's mother "a force of nature. She pushes him but at the same time communicates with me and gives him the freedom to do what he wants to do," he said.
Gabriel's room could belong to any 16-year-old Amherst boy. On a recent Monday morning he was sketching a Pokemon figure on the computer next to his bed, his clothes scattered on the floor. His artwork hangs on the walls, along with framed certificates of achievement from school, a Puerto Rican flag, a photo of Manny Ramirez from 2005, and 90 ribbons he won in Amherst Tritons swimming events. A TV is tuned to The Weather Channel.
Gustavo is about to leave for a gym, where he'll be lifting weights and doing a full-body workout.
"The coach expects you to go to the gym at least three times a week," he tells a visitor.
Gabriel acknowledges that his mother is a strong influence.
"She pushes me a lot, but that's a good thing," he said. "I wouldn't be very good at math if I didn't try."
This summer he will attend a singing camp sponsored by the Village Harmony organization of Vermont. He has started looking at colleges.
Gustavo is going to an ice hockey camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Kris said that the Amherst schools have been as supportive as she had hoped when she moved here.
"It couldn't get any better," she said. "Teachers, staff, everyone is watching out for them, letting them experience different sports and clubs. I've been blessed in that sense."