Matthew was diagnosed at age 11 with Asperger Syndrome/high functioning autism. His language skills and intelligence are within “normal” ranges, but he faces difficulties in his ability to adapt to changes, interact socially, and regulate his behavior and schedule.
Matthew was extremely fortunate to have a supportive church community. The pastors and youth leaders at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, took great care to include Matthew, adjust to his quirks, and create a flexible and caring environment for him.
Youth leaders learned to alert us ahead of time when new or challenging activities were scheduled. They allowed him to leave the room when his frustration or anxiety got too high. And they encouraged his peers to include him and help calm him. The congregation also learned where Matthew liked to sit in church—in the front row of the wing, positioned for an easy exit. So even when we arrived late, our seats were usually waiting for us.
Matthew’s school situation was also supportive. Before he entered middle school, the principal scheduled in-service Asperger Syndrome training for Matthew’s teachers. Though the teachers made some adjustments, Matthew was unable to successfully stay in school during those middle school years. His former fourth grade teacher, Jeanette Beck, began tutoring him at our home in sixth grade, and Matthew was able to re-enter the mainstream classroom in ninth grade with Mrs. Beck as his full-time aide. She stayed with him through graduation, and through her skillful support Matthew achieved academic success.
Though he had his high school diploma in hand, Matthew was clearly not ready for full time college or employment. The school and county agencies were able to get him into a part-time internship with a job coach at the local community college library for six months. But this was not a long-term solution to his advancement.
So we took the huge leap to enroll Matthew in the College Internship Program (CIP) in Bloomington, Indiana, a year-round residential program that provides individualized social, academic, career and life skills instruction to young adults with Asperger Syndrome, ADD and other learning differences. This transition began in January, and it has been both beneficial and extremely challenging for Matthew and his family.
After spending 20 years looking out for his needs, anticipating what might cause him distress, and managing his life, my wife Sandra and I had to make the transition into letting professionals do most of these things with Matthew. Just as he does at home, Matthew has good days and bad days. We are working together to find the right combination of academic, vocational, and social activities that will move him closer to independent living and vocational success without overwhelming him in the process.
We have financial and medical power of attorney for Matthew’s affairs, but the staff at CIP helps Matthew to pay his own bills, fill his own prescriptions, and make his own appointments. They communicate with us regularly via phone, email, and face-to-face meetings. We see him about once a month either in Bloomington or in Archbold on breaks.
We have been blessed with caring and supportive teachers, youth leaders, congregation members, and professional program staff who have made the effort to see Matthew as a unique person with much to offer his church, school, and community. From his award-winning comedy routine at his senior class Gong Show to his love of puns and word humor, Matthew’s sense of humor can take you by surprise and make your day memorable. That hearty laugh is contagious, and all who hear it benefit from Matthew’s unique personality and talents.
Kevin Sauder lives in Archbold, Ohio, where he and his family attend Zion Mennonite Church. He served on ADN's Board of Directors from 2007 to 2011.