Ralph Savarese’s son, DJ, will be the first nonspeaking person with autism to live in college dorms—and the first ever to attend a school as highly selective as Oberlin.
“The silver trumpet of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.”
So Frederick Douglass describes the impact of learning to read in his autobiography. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy,” he writes. “It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity.”
My son, DJ, recently used this passage as an epigraph for his college admission essay, comparing his predicament as a nonspeaking person with autism who had been taught to read and to type on a computer to that of a famous, mid-19th-century American slave. What use is knowledge, DJ asks, if it can’t be developed and mobilized to improve one’s life?
Unlike Douglass, however, who was entirely self-taught, DJ has enjoyed a rigorous education. The moment we adopted him from foster care at the age of 6, my wife and I included him in a regular classroom, despite the fact that he carried the label of “profound mental retardation.”
It was no small achievement getting him out of the special school in which he had learned nothing. Inclusion, of course, was equally challenging, but with the help of many dedicated teachers, aides, counselors, principals and therapists, DJ slowly but surely proved his competence. By the time he entered high school, he was earning all A’s in an advanced curriculum and using his text-to-voice synthesizer to participate vigorously in academic and extracurricular life.
In addition to promoting the importance of self-advocacy and autistic civil rights at national conferences, he has published in newspapers, academic journals, and books. He has also authored two plays: one called Plotting Hope; the other, Finding Our Voices—both of which have been performed in our community. He has even appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 as part of a program about the burgeoning neurodiversity movement. When Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked him whether autism should be treated, he typed impishly, “Yes, treated with respect.”
Pitting his fear of an oppressive neurotypical culture, which as a rule continues to exclude people with autism and to prevent them from realizing their potential, against his belief in the power of words to combat prejudice and to change society, he decided to apply to a range of highly selective liberal arts colleges. Although he had made a place for himself in our small, rural community, he had his doubts about the wider world.
The fact remains: very few people whom the medical community would describe as “severely autistic” matriculate to college. By some estimates, only 20 nonspeaking people with autism have ever earned a college degree. Tito Mukhopadhyay, author of three books and perhaps the world’s most renowned nonspeaking autist, puts it this way: “My school is the doubt in your eyes.”
Some of the colleges to which DJ applied were close to home; others were a good 16 hours away. In the end, he set his sites on Oberlin College, a mere nine hours away. He liked Oberlin so much that he chose to apply early decision. My wife’s grandfather taught French and Italian there years ago, and the town resembles the one in which we live.
But most important to DJ was the institution’s commitment to inclusion. The first college or university to admit women and African Americans, Oberlin, DJ believed, might be ready to admit him—not only admit him but figure out a way for him to live in the dorms. He wants to be the first nonspeaking autist to go away volitionally to school.
How will he do this? How will we do this? Heaven knows, but how have we done anything? How have we all gotten this far? Only by laboring imaginatively and by building communities of support will this young man, who has so much to offer, continue to flourish.
During his two campus visits to Oberlin, DJ says that he heard the “silver trumpet of freedom.” Like Frederick Douglass and his other hero, Harriet Tubman, he longs to work on behalf of his people, breaking barriers in education, housing, and employment. Just last week he received his letter from Oberlin, and I’m happy to report that he got in. “Now maybe I can easy breathe,” DJ remarked.
My wife and I feel less pride than gratitude for the many people who have helped our son, allowing a boy who was thrown away, then abused terribly in foster care, to write joyously of his “reassessed as smart self’s walk down freedom’s trail.”