Early in the summer, I received a letter notifying me that my school district was honoring me for ‘My Career Dreams’ poster during the June district meeting. My entry for the National Career Development Poster Contest had placed first in state, and third place nationally. The June meeting date, as well as the July date, fell during my Precollege session at Ringling College of Art and Design. Thankfully, the district rescheduled me for August on the last day of summer vacation.
I spent that day organizing my supplies for the first day of school, and finally getting my learner’s permit. This is my senior year. My older brother Anthony has low verbal autism, and aged out of special education services June 2012, and is now home full time with my mom. Anthony is prone to very loud echolalia which he can’t control. Family events requiring a respectful silence are handled by one parent staying home with Anthony, and the other parent attending the event. My father’s work schedule had interfered with many of my art recognitions over the years. My mother did not want him to miss another opportunity, so my dad accompanied me and my mother stayed home with Anthony.
When my father and I arrived at the district auditorium, we were told that I was also being recognized for my senior project work, which led to my becoming a contributing editor for Age of Autism. This came as a complete surprise. We were prepared for my art acknowledgment, but had no idea there would be any recognition for Age of Autism. My father was very proud they wanted to extend dual recognition. However, it was emotionally bittersweet to have one child being recognized for accomplishments inspired by the other more vulnerable one. We both couldn’t help but wonder what Anthony’s accomplishments might have been if autism hadn’t come to call. Even our happy moments have a little pain underneath.
In attendance was Melissa Rawl, principal of Lexington High School, and Ken Lake, the principal of Lexington Technology Center. The Board of Trustees welcomed everyone, and said the meeting would be brief because the school year was starting the next day. They handed out a newsletter entitled “Proof Positive” which honors students and teachers receiving state, national, and international awards. I was categorized under “Visual Arts Awards”.
Cynthia Smith, Chair of the Board of Trustees, asked me to come forward and stated, “At the end of her junior year, Natalie received honors for her visual art talent. She won third place in the National Career Development Poster Contest for high school students. Also, Natalie’s senior project garnered her attention from Age of Autism, a daily web newspaper. Her senior project featured a work of art inspired by her brother and titled ‘NOT Born This Way’. She posted the artwork and a description of her project on the Age of Autism’s Facebook page. The overwhelming response landed her an interview with the organizers of the daily web newspaper who invited her to become their youngest contributing editor. Congratulations Natalie on both of your accomplishments.” Karen Woodward, Superintendent of Lexington 1, handed me my certificate. The audience applauded and they snapped our photograph.
I felt elated and overwhelmed. I had chosen “Autism in Society: Media Portrayal Versus Reality” for my senior project for personal reasons. I was shocked and extremely grateful that the district felt this accomplishment was important. Over the years, I had grown used to having my feelings and concerns about Anthony disregarded by my peers. District recognition of my research and contribution to Age of Autism came as a wonderful surprise. To have such prominent support from teachers and administration gave me such a sense of relief to know my efforts had not gone unnoticed.
Moments like this seem like serendipity. My career ambitions were being recognized along with my devotion to Anthony. I embrace every opportunity because I want to make a comfortable life for my brother and me as we grow older. Anthony inspires my artwork as well as my determination to succeed. Knowing my school district supports me for my efforts makes me believe all my dreams are possible.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to be understood. I never imagined such compassion from the
people that surround me.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.