Torrey Pines’ Jeremy Sicile-Kira clears big hurdles on road to graduation
Published on the front page of The North County Times
By CHRISTINA LOPEZ
Most people would consider scaling Mount Everest or winning a Nobel Peace Prize an impressive feat, but Jeremy Sicile-Kira —- who was diagnosed at age 3 with severe autism —- is scaling heights that are equally impressive.
On Friday, the 21-year-old is set to become the first nonverbal autistic student to receive a full academic diploma from Torrey Pines High School, San Dieguito Union School District officials said.
He will also give the school’s commencement address, which has been prerecorded using a computer voice generator that translated his typed speech into an audio file burned onto a CD.
Sicile-Kira communicates by using what is known as Rapid Prompting Method, a system that requires intense focus and participation by aides or other caregivers to keep him on task.
In Sicile-Kira’s case, his mother, Chantal, and aides use prompts —- snapping their fingers or pointing at familiar objects —- as they ask questions.
He then points with one finger to a letter board or keyboard to spell out his answers.
“My mom tells me that no one is better than anyone else,” Sicile-Kira said in an interview last week, using his laminated keyboard, and assisted by his mother. “We know that we should try our best.”
Autism is a range of complex neurological disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive behavior patterns, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Many people with autism are diagnosed as toddlers. In severe cases, children with autism appear to be locked in their own worlds, unable to communicate.
Chantal Sicile-Kira said her son began showing signs of autism when he was 9 months old.
“He didn’t move. He didn’t develop right away,” she said. “I had to fight to find out about Jeremy’s condition.”
In the years since, she said, her son has gone through home schooling, special education and many different therapies, but couldn’t spell out words until he was 14 years old and began learning RPM.
“I really believe in the impossible,” she said.
At Friday’s commencement ceremony, Sicile-Kira —- decked out in cap and gown —- will deliver his speech to 619 fellow graduates.
His sister, Rebecca, 18, is graduating earlier Friday from Canyon Crest Academy and will be in the audience during the 4 p.m. Torrey Pines ceremony.
“The staff and the students know him so well —- they’ll be encouraging him,” she said about her brother’s participation in the event. “I think people will be proud of him when he delivers the speech.”
Bruce Cochrane, executive director of student services for the San Dieguito Union High School District, has worked with Sicile-Kira for the past three years and is just one of the many people who helped him reach this goal.
“Jeremy is an incredible young man,” Cochrane said. “I think as he has matured, his skills and talent have flourished. (He) has been able to communicate at a greater level and really show people his intelligence.”
Sicile-Kira is able to earn his diploma under a state law that gives special education students until age 22 to do so.
He completed the necessary course work and passed the California Exit Exam on his first try.
Sicile-Kira’s mother said she never believed the naysayers who told her when the boy was young that he would have few options in life.
“Once they diagnosed him, I was told to find him a good institution,” she said. “And I have —- it’s called college.”
In the fall, Sicile-Kira will enroll at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, with an interest in journalism; he hopes to write for the college newspaper.
Until then, his summer plans include financing a two-week trip to New York City. He also plans to publish his first book and establish an online newsletter geared toward helping families understand children with disabilities such as autism.
“I think I greatly inspire others by my ability to continue to learn and not give up on my dreams,” he said.
An author, speaker and autism expert, Chantal Sicile-Kira is working on her fourth book on autism and says she has learned much from her son in the years since his diagnosis.
“We raised him to never feel sorry for himself,” Chantal Sicile-Kira said. “He’s a big inspiration to me. He has taught me patience and has actually made me into a stronger person.”
The message Sicile-Kira wants to convey to the class of 2010 is to focus on a goal and never give up on yourself.
“When I first arrived, I had no way to communicate,” he said. “But over the years, I learned how to spell, and my life changed from one of loneliness to one of having great teachers and an education.”