January 16, 2015
My Brother, Freddie
It was graduation season at Sacramento State University and my brother Freddie was going to be walking the stage in his cap and gown to graduate from the same campus I had just a year ago. I was elated by the thought of seeing Freddie being recognized for his achievements and growth. However, my apprehension outweighed my excitement for this moment because Freddie is autistic.
Freddie is a 22-year-old man with severe autism spectrum disorder. Freddie has the mental capacity of a toddler and can do very little for himself. He knows little vocabulary and needs help performing most daily tasks such as brushing his teeth, tying his shoes, bathing and dressing himself. Freddie displays the common characteristics of autism – social discomfort, little patience, and anxiety of the unknown, however all these characteristics are magnified due to his lack of communication and comprehension. His typical Saturday at home consists of singing along with his favorite Disney movies, eating french-fries for dinner, and visiting the zoo to watch the monkeys swing. Despite his limited abilities, he is the happiest boy I know and has the biggest heart.
When thinking of Freddie’s graduation, I too had fear of the unknown, fear that all these “firsts” were going to be too much for my brother. Will he cooperate in wearing a cap and gown? Will he be patient enough to sit for the duration of the ceremony? Will he go into panic mode when he sees the room filled with people? Will he be able to do any of this?
On the day of the ceremony, seeing my brother wear his cap and gown filled my eyes with tears of honor. I had never experienced a moment more proud than this. This was a milestone I never thought my family and I would get with Freddie. I felt emotional knowing that my parents got to see both of their children graduate, and even though Freddie wasn’t walking across the stage to receive a Bachelor’s Degree, he was walking across a much bigger stage he had built with his growth and perseverance.
Almost instantly after Freddie sat down he began to whine and fuss. He stood up and began to pace the room. As his frustration grew his complaints got louder. Nevertheless, his instructors insisted on his full participation. The ceremony consisted a personal song playing for each of the 12 graduates as they took to the podium to receive their diploma. A teacher greeted each student and gave a short speech about fond memories of them and their accomplishments. Freddie’s agitation became distracting for parents and loved ones trying to watch the ceremony. I too grew frustrated and began to think, “Why aren’t they getting Freddie out of the way? If they just played his song now he wouldn’t be such an interference for the other students and we could take him home. He is clearly upset and uncomfortable! Why aren’t his teachers doing anything to relieve the situation?” Freddie’s autism was noticeably the most severe of the class.
After 20 minutes of Freddie’s fussing his song finally played. It was ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ from the movie Toy Story, one of his all-time favorites. Freddie’s face quickly turned from troubled to blissful in an instant! He knew that was his song and frolicked to the podium where his instructor began her speech, beginning with “Freddie is a man of few words…but he is the reason why programs like these exist.” My family and I began to cry with happiness. Although his achievements were not as drastic compared to others in his class, nothing could compare to listening to the touching recognition being given to my brother and his paramount success.
It was in that moment that all my anger towards his instructors and his behavior went away. I had realized today’s struggle is what Freddie’s journey is all about. If he had been the first graduate to be announced and we took him home, the obstacle would not have felt so great once hurdled. Sometimes I need to remind myself just because Freddie is not learning in the same manner as everyone else, this doesn’t mean he is not being educated. If I told my first grade teacher I don’t want to practice my arithmetic because I don’t like it, she wouldn’t have let me disregard the lesson and participate in an activity I did like to do. This same life principle applies to Freddie. It was an accomplishment for him to wait his turn in the ceremony, to wear different clothes, to walk in front of crowd, and to stand beside his teacher.
Freddie, along with my family, and his instructors truly deserved this day because behind a child with disabilities is a team of supporters.
Post submitted by guest blogger Monica Topete.