I have had the privilege of meeting so many talented and intelligent young people who are on the autism spectrum since beginning my career as a published author and motivational speaker back in April 2010. Plenty of them were pre-teenagers when our universes first collided and one has even just graduated from the College Experience where I currently serve as the Media and Activities Liaison. (Damn! I am getting old.) These youths were in the throes of Asperger’s syndrome while also contending with confusion, anger, and the understandable hopelessness that anything could ever get much better. I have thought about many of these young people, and it made my heart leap last year when I viewed Facebook photographs of one who had just graduated from high school with a smile on his face that did not indicate the horrors he had been through in the past with bullying. That would have been more than enough, but he also had a gorgeous girlfriend by his side, which is a milestone I had not achieved until much later in life. But there are very few students who have touched me as much and who I have thought about over the years like the boy in this photograph who is technically a grown man now. He just graduated from Orchard View High School where he has achieved the honor of Valedictorian!
Todd Weaver and I met shortly after the release of my first book, “Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters.” I forget the details of how we connected and/or met because so many things from those days are a wondrous blur. But I distinctly remember reaching out to him after his mother contacted me through email and explained he was having a difficult time in the fifth grade with the typical bullying and coming to terms with Asperger’s syndrome. Despite being overwhelmed with many things at the moment including struggling to keep up with the public speaking engagements, I carved out some time to send him a nice card of encouragement as well as a personalized copy of Atypical. His mother, Stephanie Porach Hilerio wrote back and mentioned that his circumstances had improved dramatically after I sent him the book and card in which I referred to Asperger’s syndrome as his superpower! After he showed it off to the entire class and educated them about Asperger’s syndrome, a little girl even wanted to be his girlfriend. I was happy for him but remained very realistic based on what most of my childhood was like. Deep down, I felt these accolades were merely a blip in reality. The admiration and social improvements were not meant to last because of how young people are in the jungle of schoolyard culture. I worried about Todd and feared everything would become much worse long before it would someday get remotely better! The youths who are kind, honest, hardworking, considerate, generous, and ambitious are sometimes still referred to as "losers" and the incremental improvements fall on deaf ears. I am very pleased to tell you that this pessimistic premonition was completely wrong.
Life is not perfect for anybody. Expecting everyone to accept you is as futile as destroying all the mosquitoes in the most stagnant of wetlands. I am sure that Todd has had occasional bumps in the road with bullying. For the most part, however, life has been more merciful than it is for many people struggling to navigate the throes of Asperger’s syndrome at an early age. Todd’s classmates from elementary school continued to look out for him in the middle school years, and this served to dramatically alleviate any potential abuse. (My only friend from elementary school did not want me sitting with him and his new friends in the middle school cafeteria so he gave me a quarter to just go away.) I am pleased that Todd has experienced the stability that took so very long to enter my own life. While I would like to believe that I had a small role to play in his success, the bulk of the credit goes to his teachers; Todd’s brothers, Evan and Stephen; his stepfather, Dennis; and his mother, Stephanie. I was honored he had thought of me and insisted that I receive an invitation to his graduation celebration at his Poughkeepsie home. It was a pleasure to celebrate with him and his family last weekend on Sunday, June 30, 2019. The following is the Facebook footage of his eloquent and humorous Valedictorian speech in front of the Orchard View Alternative High School faculty and student body. Let us wish him the greatest success in his future at Mount Saint Mary College and wherever his path leads! https://www.facebook.com/stephanie.porach/videos/10219615040950852/