Joseph’s Technicolor World
When I was in college, I had to do an internship in the spring of my senior year, so for 2 1/2 months I lived and worked in Clinton, MS (a suburb of Jackson) for MCI WorldCom (before the fall). I had a lot of interesting life experiences while I was there, but none of them compare to the people I met. In particular, I became fast friends with the Administrative Assistant for the department in which I interned. Marilyn is a former Marine (though she hates me putting those two words together…Marines aren’t former anything! Semper Fi!) and one of the best mothers I’ve ever met. She has two children: a son and a daughter. Her son, Joseph, was diagnosed at an early age with Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the Autism spectrum. On May 22, Joseph graduated from high school completing all the same necessary state graduation requirements as the other students in his class. The local newspaper printed an article about this fine young man. I have known Joseph since he was 10 years old. He really would barely look at me or have a conversation with me mainly because he was shy around new people. But over the years he’s warmed up to me (much more so than I warmed up to his pet snake) and can even start and carry on a conversation with me. When I first met him, I could already see how remarkable he was at pushing forward despite his obstacles. He is an inspiration to say the least, and I wanted to share his story with you all. Best of luck getting through this without your eyes getting at least a little bit misty. Click on the article title to go to the original publishing and see the reader comments. It warms my heart to see such incredible feedback about someone that I’ve believed in from the moment I met him and to be reminded how incredibly important teachers are in our lives.
Disability does not stop Clinton graduate
Joseph Upton has been in school full time since he was 3 1/2 years old.
He has spent hours after school catching up on the school work he couldn’t finish during the day. Then he would spend about four hours on his homework each school night.
But Upton, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has graduated from Clinton High School despite the obstacles presented by the disorder, part of a group of conditions called autism spectrum disorders.
“My disorder makes things a little bit complicated for me to understand,” said Upton, 19. For example, sometimes he is unable to write fast enough to get lecture notes.
In Mississippi, 23.16 percent of students with disabilities completed school with a traditional diploma during the 2007-08 school year, according to the state Department of Education. Students with disabilities can complete school by receiving a traditional diploma, but to do so they must meet the same state graduation requirements as other students.
Students with disabilities also may receive an occupational diploma, a certificate or a GED.
Asked why her son pursued a diploma, Marilyn Upton said, “I think he’s capable. I felt all the time that he could do it, and I pushed him, I guess.”
She said she taught her children to not quit what they have started.
“You never reach a goal without working to get there,” Marilyn Upton said.
Unlike children with autism, those with Asperger’s syndrome “never really have a language problem,” said Kimberly Bellipanni, a behavioral specialist and certified school psychologist at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Children’s Center for Communication and Development.
Children with Asperger’s syndrome have cognitive development on par with most other children, and some are “really highly functioning, really bright,” she said.
Children with Asperger’s also have very rigid behavior and can be routine-oriented, Bellipanni said. They may not listen to everyone else, or may have trouble initiating or continuing a conversation. They may have an anger outburst or not be socially aware, she said.
Joseph Upton’s third-grade teacher had a class of gifted students similar to Joseph, and some who were worse, Marilyn Upton said. But the teacher, Ginger Vandeventer, “catered to the educational level of every one of them,” she said.
The students all worked on the same tasks, but at a different pace. Vandeventer would write assignments on the board, and had enrichment activities for those who finished early. That left more time to work with the children who needed extra help, she said.
Joseph “was easily distracted,” Vandeventer said.
If she told him to get back to work, he would “get mad, and everything would come to a halt,” she said. He would “talk back or stop or not want to do anything. … It took him awhile to cool off.”
Instead of calling for him to focus, Vandeventer said she would walk by and tap on his desk. Doing so “got the same point across, but it was a passive thing,” she said.
Vandeventer also learned Joseph was motivated by the animals she kept in her classroom – fish, lizards, even a snake.
Clinton High School special education teacher Regina Britt, who worked with Joseph, called him a hard worker.
“He always tried his best and was always concerned about his grades,” Britt said in an e-mail. “Joseph loves art and karate. These activities allow Joseph to express himself.”
Joseph worked hard on his school assignments during the week, and the family made the most of weekends, Marilyn Upton said. Another outlet for Joseph was TEAAM’s Camp Kaleidoscope, where he went every year until he was 15.
But when Joseph became a teenager, he felt the camp staff was treating him like a baby.
“It’s like saying I can’t do things normal people do,” he said.
In school, Joseph struggled with the state English test but eventually passed it. He called his mother, who was away at Camp Shelby, to tell her the good news.
“You want to see a soldier look like an idiot? I was standing there bawling,” said Marilyn Upton, an air defense officer in the National Guard. “I was so excited for him. I was so happy.”
On May 22, Joseph donned a red cap and gown and marched with Clinton High School’s Class of 2009.
“One of my greatest teaching moments was when I saw Joseph, dressed in his cap and gown, receive his high school diploma,” Britt said.
Asked how he felt about the ceremony, Joseph said, “I was kind of nervous, but I was good.”
His family raved about him. His father, Jeffrey Upton, called him “amazing.”
“His work ethic is absolutely astonishing,” Jeffrey Upton said. “It’s been a long wait, but I’m glad,” said Rebekah Upton, Joseph’s 16-year-old sister. “He’s had to struggle through school.”
Joseph now wants to attend college in Savannah, Ga., and hopes one day to be an animator.
Earlier, when asked what it meant for her son to graduate, Marilyn Upton said, “To say that a child has been in school full-time since they were 3 1/2 years old, I don’t know if anybody can really comprehend that.
“To think that somebody has had to put forth that much work to get a high school diploma … he’s just amazing.”