Swimming Upstream: Student With Autism Pushes To Graduate

Jun 10, 2015

Patrick Talbot and his mom, Ethel at their church, which holds a special ceremony every year for high school graduates. Patrick will receive his high school diploma from Newton Learning Center Thursday, June 11.

All week, KUNR has been looking at students who have excelled despite adversity. Some who have intellectual challenges like autism have a harder time finishing high school and in fact, only about a third in Washoe County actually do. Making it to graduation has been a struggle for one young man who suffers from this disorder, as Reno Public Radio’s Esther Ciammachilli explains.

Imagine you’re cooking dinner for six people. How would you organize yourself so that different courses come out at the right times? You’d probably start by preparing all your side dishes. Then, as your entree is cooking, you make dessert. For most people, multitasking like this isn’t difficult. But for someone like 18 year-old Patrick Talbot, it’s a challenge. You see, Patrick has Asperger’s Syndrome, which a form of autism.

“Patrick says I’m going to cook a steak and he makes that. Then he says I need to clean the vegetables and cook those. He’s very focused on what he does, he’s very good at what he does, but he’s not good at accomplishing a number of things to all come together at one time.”

That’s Frank Talbot, Patrick’s father. He says Patrick is at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He struggles mainly with organization, which makes everyday tasks, like cooking, difficult. But dinner parties aren’t the problem here. It’s finishing high school.

“In public school I was really overwhelmed with the amount of work I got.”

Patrick’s been in public school most of his life and is a good student.  For the last five years, he’s also been enrolled in social thinking classes at Newton Learning Center, a school specifically for children with autism. But the high school workload was too much for Patrick, and his grades started to suffer. That’s when his parents put him in Newton fulltime his senior year. Here’s Patrick’s mother, Ethel.

“It was really frustrating. Patrick’s a very intelligent student, but I think a lot of the assignments that he was given needed to be modified. While they really tried hard, they weren’t used to autistic students.”

People with autism often struggle with abstract ideas. Jody Smith is one of Patrick’s teachers at Newton. He says Patrick needs help putting things into words. His biggest issue is writing.

“Writing takes him a very long time to process what he wants to write, once he does write it’s beautiful. But, seriously say it takes him three times I would say to come up with the ideas that he needs to come up with. So I think a lot of times they would just give up on him.”

The Washoe County School District is making moves to better help students with autism make it to graduation. In January, the district began restructuring its special education program, by having more conversations with parents, teachers and students to find out what’s working and what isn’t. Frank Selvaggio is with the District.  

“One of the critical things is by being able to sit with school teens to determine whether or not these students are even in the right classes for graduation, and then if they’re not what we can do to get them in the right classes to be able to graduate with that standard diploma.”

Last year, 31 percent of students with autism graduated from Washoe County Schools, but only children who received a standard diploma are included in this number. This diploma goes to students who meet all requirements for graduation. There’s also an adjusted diploma, which is given to students who don’t. Those who receive an adjusted diploma are considered non-graduates, and, Selvaggio says, this can hurt them in the future.

“It is nearly impossible for them to get financial aid for college. Not only that, you don’t qualify for the Millennium Scholarship either.”

Helping students with autism succeed in school is a state wide effort as well. In his recently approved budget, Governor Brian Sandoval allotted $73 million for autism support. That’s up from $1.8 million in 2010.

Dale Erquiaga is State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He says they’re also stepping up enforcement of Individual Education Plans, or IEPs.

“We’re engaged in a couple of enforcement actions through the state to ensure that children who do have a disability or are being taught under an individual education plan are receiving the services to which they are entitled.”

The IEP is a federally mandated rubric outlining special accommodations for students with developmental disabilities.  Every student’s IEP is different and may include things like being placed in a smaller classroom, or being seated next to a friend. Advocates say these modifications can make or break the success of a child who has autism.

The restructuring of the special education program in Washoe County is ongoing and changes have yet to take shape. But, Selvaggio says, they’ll continue having conversations with the community. As for Patrick Talbot,

Patrick Talbot with his diploma from Newton Learning Center.
Credit Ethel Talbot

“I’m kind of excited to graduate and I’m also a little nervous.”

Patrick will receive his standard diploma tomorrow, and he starts college at TMCC in the fall.