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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Applying to College, Student with Autism Changes Perceptions One Song at a Time

From The Boston Globe

By Gianna Hitsos
February 6, 2014

It has been over a year since I started my college search. I still have months to go before I begin my college life, but I wanted to take a look back on my new, exciting and frightening journey.

Gianna Hitsos has auditioned for several college music programs
and is close to making a decision on where she wants to attend this fall.

I am an 18-year-old senior in high school with high-functioning autism. I decided to apply to college as a music major.

For the past five years, I have taken voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum, a unique program that trains musically talented autistic students.

Music has always helped me process things better, but it has turned into so much more. I found a talent and passion for singing I never knew I had, and music became a path to inclusion for me. I was determined to study music at college!

With all of the challenges that go with having autism, my parents and I realized that for me to be successful we had to find colleges that were fairly close to home, since I would have to live on campus.

While other kids looked at sports, Greek life, internships, and how to get as far away from home as possible, I looked at my major, how the buildings were organized on campus, and most importantly, whether these schools were inclusive of autistic people. Feeling included somewhere was as important as academics.

The other factor was the challenge of having a roommate. Since I “stim” by rocking back and forth, pacing, and talking to myself, I would need a single room to succeed.

After a lot of research (Thanks, Mom!), we narrowed it down to 10 colleges, and last fall we started our visits to them. What an eye opener that was! Some were beautiful and had great music programs, some did not give me a feeling of inclusion, and some looked downright dangerous.

When we narrowed it down, my mom and I scheduled tours and made appointments with the disability services departments. We asked what accommodations they could provide me and if they are experienced with students on the spectrum at their college.

The next part was really important. I went to visit colleges two, three, even four times. It made all the difference because when I went back, I sometimes liked the college more, and it went up in the ranking, and sometimes I got a different vibe or learned a little more about the students and the rank dropped.

Some colleges require SAT or ACT scores. I truly believe standardized tests do not reflect my ability to learn and be successful in school. Despite my autism, I have been able to maintain an A average and I’m a member of the National Honor Society. But when it comes to test-taking I need accommodations like a separate room and frequent breaks. Even still, taking the ACT was hard.

Another part of the application was the required essay. This part was easy because I love to write, and I was asked to tell my personal story. My journey as a person with autism is quite a unique story. My only complaint here was that there a word limit and I had so much to tell them!

Most all of the colleges “strongly” suggest that you interview with the admissions department as part of your application. When I heard of this requirement, I panicked. I couldn’t imagine, with my autism, how I would be able to answer unanticipated questions and use enough pragmatic language to impress these people, let alone look them in the eye!

My parents, however, believed in me and knew that if we practiced, I could do it. So, my mom looked up sample questions online and every night, whether I wanted to or not, we practiced the interview questions for an hour. Believe it or not, when I got to the first interview, the person asked me the exact same questions we practiced!

The worst part of this adventure is the stress that I experienced along the way. The process of transitioning from high school to college is really difficult, especially as a student with autism. I didn’t want to talk about the process with my parents, even though I had a lot of worries on my mind. I have friends, but unfortunately none that I could talk to about my issues because their journey was different.

I can only say to other parents, never stop reaching out to your kids, since my parents finally reached me and got me through it, and I am so much calmer and happier now!

Two of the colleges offered an experience where you could stay overnight in the dorms with students and the next day you could see what a day in the life of a student at that college would be like by attending classes and events. This sounded like a really exciting thing to do, so I signed up.

The problem with this experience is that I had never spent a night away from home without my parents. Also, I am an only child, so I have never had to share things like bedrooms.

I decided that the best way to handle the autism issue was to bring it up right away. So, I explained to my hosts (and anybody else we were hanging out with) that if they saw or heard anything that I did or said that seemed different to them, it was because I had high-functioning autism.

Once I came out with it, the girls I stayed with said, “That’s cool.” What a relief! I had cleared the air, and I could be myself!

Every event I attended was so interesting and fun and the classes were so awesome that I really started to feel like college was the place for me. Not all colleges require live auditions to become a music major. Some just ask you to send in your resume and a CD or DVD recording of you singing. However, three of the colleges required that you audition live, which was pretty nerve-racking the first time around.

The second audition went much, much better than the first one. I had a lot more time to warm up, and the staff was a lot friendlier. Right away, I performed my two songs, which I NAILED! I felt awesome!

Everything was complete and all I had to do was wait. And then . . .Yep! My first college acceptance letter with a merit scholarship. Gianna 1, Autism 0!

Since then, I have been accepted at four colleges so far. Two of the colleges were the ones that asked for my ACT scores. Go figure! Even more exciting, remember that audition I nailed? I passed the audition and was accepted into their Music Department! I haven’t made my final decision, although I am leaning toward one, so this journey is not finished. But I’m so happy that all my hard work paid off.

All I know is that I am on my way to fulfill my goals, and I will be changing perceptions of autism one song at a time.

.......................................................................

Gianna Hitsos is a student at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School and an advocate for autism awareness. She has been writing a guest blog for Autism Speaks about her college application journey. This column was condensed from two of her articles.

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