The Silver Trumpet of Freedom

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.

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“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?

When Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked him whether autism should be treated, he typed impishly, “Yes, treated with respect.”

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.”

—Photo jwisser/Flickr

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About Ralph James Savarese

Ralph James Savarese is the author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (Other Press 2007) and co-editor of Papa PhD: Essays on Fatherhood by Men in the Academy (Rutgers University Press 2010). Visit his website.

Comments

  1. Ralph –

    This is an amazing story, and your son os one amazing kiddo.

    Inclusion is, I feel, the biggest obstacle autists face. It’s not the fact they can’t communicate the way most of us do, or the fact that they move and think and react in a different way than most of us, it’s the looks of disapproval when they tic or the person who jokes about them like they aren’t there and the true peer group they don’t have.

    The mission statement of my agency (providing in home support) doesn’t say anything about teaching them to talk or to sort their colored bears (sigh) or to stop biting their fingers. It is simply this:

    “It is our fundamental belief that each individual’s contribution to their community is based on their unique journey. A journey developed through their own life experiences, and the process by which they developed the necessary skills to succeed.

    It’s not enough just to exist within the community, if one lives long enough it will happen naturally. It is important to be viewed as a respected community member, one who is held in regard by his or her neighbors. This quality of community status results, we feel, from a life long process of positive influences we can have on each other.

    This process begins at birth, and continues beyond death (we influence others who live beyond ourselves). Our part in this process of a child’s journey, is to strive in assisting each child realize his or her own ability to influence others, by assisting them in developing necessary skills to succeed in their respective community settings. By influencing this process early on, in cooperation with consumer families, state agencies, and the community at large, we envision a society in which all people are treated with respect and dignity, and all people are supported in providing their best in the service of each other.

    Everyone is a shareholder when it comes to each individual realizing his or her potential in the community.”

    I think your son’s community, and maybe the global community, is going to be awfully impressed with his accomplishments before he’s finished. he’s already accomplished much, and it doesn’t sound like he’s near done.

    Well done, all of you!

  2. Amazing story — very moving. Tyler Cowen wrote a wonderful book that might interest your son (if he hasn’t read it already). It’s been retitled “Infovore,” and it’s about how people on the autism spectrum (on which Tyler Cowen considers himself) are ideally suited for the information economy.

  3. Char Brandl says:

    Wow! This is so very exciting! Congratulations, DJ – and family!!!!

  4. I was just talking to my boyfriend (whom I met when we were both students at Oberlin) about language and the brain, and I mentioned nonspeaking autists using text-to-speech synthesizers, and that many were misdiagnosed with mental retardation. I hope that the increasing visibility of autism as a condition and autists as a demographic will eventually teach the neurotypical world a little more respect for neurodiversity and for individuality in general. I’m proud that my alma mater is helping by continuing its long tradition of inclusive education. I’m also glad to know that this remarkable young man will be enriching Oberlin’s community with his presence.

  5. This makes me incredibly happy and proud. Oberlin is a wonderful school that will support DJ in not only his academic pursuits but also his social pursuits. The students that go there are wonderfully inclusive and kind.

  6. As the mom of a junior at Oberlin and having met a good number of students on campus I am sure that DJ will be met with welcoming respect. As the sibling of two children suffering from a rare disease, my daughter was so proud of Oberlin.
    Congratulations!

    • Ralph Savarese says:

      Thank you, Randy. I really appreciate your remark. So far, Oberlin has been amazing even as my son struggles with anxiety.

  7. Ilene Rosen says:

    Ralph

    Congratulations to your son and your family. My son is a sophomore at Oberlin and would like to meet your son. Will you be at parents weekend on Nov 9th weekend. I will be there and Wondered if perhaps we could meet for coffee in town.

    • Ralph Savarese says:

      Ilene, I’m in Oberlin right now because I have a lecture I committed to months back and thus will miss parents weekend. But I’d love to meet you some time. Thanks for your comment.

  8. This article made me so happy! As a mother to a non-verbal 5 year old boy with ASD, I am always looking for signs of hope. I shared this article on social networks and just about everywhere. I keep returning to read it because it puts a big grin on my face every time! Thanks for posting.

  9. I am nonverbal autistic person and going to college also. Sort of. Not so successfully. Never lived in dorm, would not want to. Going to University of Washington in Seattle now, is this 4th attempt at college. UW is amazing college, professors are wonderful and helpful. Hopeful of actually being successful this time. Having good AAC and in-class aide makes it possible.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Ralph Savarese’s son, DJ, will be the first nonspeaking person with autism to live in college dorm… [...]

  2. My non-speaking autistic son will be Oberlin’s first…

    My non-speaking autistic son will be Oberlin’s first…

  3. [...] the autism spectrum and to avoid discrimination based on their disability. (See Ralph Savarese’s blog post on Oberlin’s acceptance of his son, DJ, possibly the first nonspeaking student with autism to [...]

  4. [...] of  Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption wrote a wonderful piece about a year ago, The Silver Trumpet of Freedom about his non-speaking, Autistic, son DJ who had just been accepted into Oberlin.  It’s a [...]

  5. [...] to my Positive Posting Promise, and share with you an article written by Ralph Saverese, entitled, The Silver Trumpet of Freedom. Mr. Saverese’s article is about hard work, faith, inclusive education, and is a shining [...]

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