Carmel Valley News, June 10, 2010
Inspirational autistic TPHS student graduates, will deliver a commencement speech
By Karen Billing
Jeremy Sicile-Kira is autistic and cannot speak, but that does not mean he has nothing to say. After seven years at Torrey Pines High School, he has earned his high school diploma and will deliver a commencement speech to his classmates through voice-assisted technology at the June 18 graduation ceremony.
“I am nervous but very touched that I am giving a speech,” said Jeremy, using a letter board to spell out his words. “I want to tell them never give up on your dreams.”
To graduate high school Jeremy, 21, has taken units in mainstream general education classes as well as in his severely handicapped classes with Allen Gustafson, whom Jeremy said is the “best teacher.” He does all the same work as his regular education peers, he just gets more time to do it. He passed his California High School Exit Exam on the first try and will attend MiraCosta College in the fall to study communications.
Next week he will graduate on the same day as his sister, Rebecca, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy.
“I was pretty amazed,” said proud mom Chantal, who never even expected it would be possible for Jeremy to earn his diploma, let alone with a 3.5 GPA.
Along the autism spectrum, every child’s symptoms are different. Although Jeremy can say a few words, he has never been able to speak. In a speech written for an autism conference, Jeremy explained how his autism affected his vision, hearing and motor skills.
He said he had to learn how to hear, how to know which noise to pay attention to and distinguish when someone was speaking to him. He had to learn how to focus to be able to see.
“If I don’t concentrate, the world seems surreal,” Jeremy said.
He encourages fellow autistic children to be patient with treatment and learning methods and to learn to read because “when you can read the world is yours.” He tells them not to worry about what they look like when they are “stimming,” a method of using repetitive motion to keep focused. It is more important to be present than to worry about what other people see, he said.
Jeremy needs support and help from his family and teachers to accomplish schoolwork, but he has never needed to be motivated to learn. He thinks knowledge is important; he loves math even though it is challenging to have to spell out how to solve each problem and he especially loves to write.
“My mom is really nice because she made me realize I could learn,” Jeremy said.
Gustafson, Jeremy’s teacher for four years, turned to Jeremy’s mother Chantal to find out what she was doing at home that could help in the classroom.
“I just kept on giving him words of encouragement and kept on sticking to the plan,” said Gustafston, who left Torrey Pines in 2008 for Eastlake High.
He said sometimes there were hard days, sometimes the methods worked and sometimes they didn’t. But Jeremy wanted to learn as much as possible.
“It was great for him to believe in himself and that education is a value and something to work at…He wanted to show people he wasn’t dumb, that he knew just as much as the person sitting next to him in high school.
“I’m immensely proud of him,” Gustafson said.
Jeremy stresses there is hope in autism, but that nothing will matter if the person doesn’t believe in themselves.
Spreading his inspiring message of hope was only possible after Jeremy found his voice.
To communicate, Jeremy uses a litewriter. He types in sentences and the machine verbalizes his words for him. Scattered throughout the house and in his backpack for school are letter boards which Jeremy uses to spell out words to his family and friends.
To present his commencement speech he will use his laptop’s TextAloud software which takes his writing and converts it into speech—he uses the same program to speak at schools and conventions.
Jeremy has really only been able to communicate with his classmates for the last two years with the litewriter and he said it has changed his life. Before, he has said he felt like he was “imprisoned in darkness.” Now he has friends and like any high school student, swaps messages on Facebook.
The friendships he was able to make were very meaningful and he said what he will miss most about Torrey Pines is “the way I was accepted by everyone.”
Jeremy’s message to others is always to follow their dreams and he’s already accomplished one of his dreams: to earn his diploma. His second big dream is “to make money.”
As he loves to write, he is working on getting a book published and wants to start an online newsletter to “create awareness and answer questions” on autism. To make a living, he will look for sponsors and advertisers on his site and is working on getting more speaking engagements to share his words.
Most of Jeremy’s writings always lead toward the inspirational and one of his personal heroes is Helen Keller.
“When Helen Keller grew up she graduated from college, became an author and an advocate for people with disabilities,” he wrote. “I hope to follow in her footsteps.”