Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Congratulations to Will Turnbull and to his parents!

'With one foot in each world,' autistic man earns MU degree

By Joan KernLancaster New Era
Published: Dec 16, 2006 12:59 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Will Turnbull is one of 25 Lancaster County students who will graduate Sunday from Millersville University with honors.

But he is the only one who is autistic.In fact, Turnbull, 32, the son of James and Ellie Turnbull, of Lititz, is the first person in Pennsylvania with his degree of autism (in the middle of the spectrum) to graduate from college, according to his mother.In August, he addressed the National Autism Conference at Penn State.“I think he’s going to find his niche as a public speaker,” said his mother.He has already found a job, with the Pennsylvania Action Coalition for Autism Services, giving presentations to people studying to be advocates for people with autism.

The irony is that Turnbull doesn’t speak. A “Write: OutLoud” computer program speaks for him.Nor does he write.With impaired fine-motor skills, he communicates slowly and laboriously by tapping a letter board, one letter at a time, or by typing on the computer, one letter at a time, with the eraser end of an unsharpened pencil.In either case, he needs someone —usually his mother, although at least 10 other people type with him — to aid him. When he taps the board, her finger steadies his hand; when he types, her hand grips his elbow.

Mrs. Turnbull has been with her son on his 10-year college odyssey, transporting him, sitting in classes with him, taking notes for him, asking the questions he types out on his computer.On Sunday, he’ll join more than 400 students, including about 167 from Lancaster County, at the 2 p.m. graduation ceremony in Pucillo Gymnasium. Master’s degrees will be conferred on 41 graduate students.With his new job, Turnbull hopes to take greater control of his life. He is planning to move out of the family home and begin working with a new, young aide. His mother hopes he will marry someday.“Now I’m out of a job,” she joked.And even though they get on each other’s nerves sometimes, she said they work very well together.“It’s been a privilege,” she said. “It’s been extraordinary.”

In his new job, Turnbull tells about his life.He has a movement disorder that sometimes interrupts his thinking.“A rush of emotions takes over his body, making it hard for him to sit down and get out what he wants to say,” Mrs. Turnbull said.He has sensory integration problems that make a flash bulb blinding, the music of a church organ unbearable, the switching on of the refrigerator motor maddening.“Our background noises are his foreground noises,” she said. “That’s the reason we never take him to Wal-Mart or Circuit City, where he would be bombarded by sensory stimulation.”He doesn’t eat pasta or bread because he can’t stand the texture. For the same reason, he can’t wear certain fabrics, such as wool and pique, and clothing tags drive him crazy.

Until he was 17, Turnbull was considered mentally retarded because he did not talk. Then a Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 teacher taught him to type.“Within a few months he was typing: ‘I want to be in regular education; I’m really smart; I’m a Democrat; I hate my clothes; I want to redecorate my room’ ” his mother said.

Two years later, he was on National Honor Society at Warwick High School. At age 21, he graduated from Warwick.It’s taken him 10 years to complete his undergraduate degree, with five years at the Lancaster campus of Harrisburg Area Community College and five at Millersville, from which he will receive a bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in history.On Thursday, Turnbull took his last college exam, in literary criticism and theory.“It (the exam) was a great culmination to my college years,” he wrote.“I loved (the course). It challenged my thinking and helped me develop my own philosophy of literature.“It involved hearing the voices of all the disenfranchised — ethnic groups, women, even those with communication differences like me.”Writing these few sentences just hours after taking his last exam took its toll on Turnbull.

He interrupted himself frequently, bursting out with words, such as “Done,” and slapping his head or biting his hand, while obsessively folding and unfolding an index card in his other hand.“I’m trying to control my behavior,” he wrote after taking a break.“He’s getting 10 years of anxiety out,” said Mrs. Turnbull.She explained that even though he says, “Done,” he doesn’t mean it, and he slaps and bites himself instead of others, childhood behaviors he has unlearned.This type of behavior is what he calls his “deceiving exterior,” she said.“He tells people, ‘You have to look deeper and see what’s inside.’ ”

Turnbull, whose friends call him “Professor,” is planning to write a book about his life — “of living life under the guise of mental retardation while having high intellectual ability.”He will probably take the title from a poem he wrote in 1995 that ends, “with one foot in each world.”Mrs. Turnbull always thought they would have a big party when Will graduated from college.“But that isn’t his style,” she said.Instead they will celebrate “very quietly.”They’ll order in some pizza. His brothers, Dan, 28, and Jesse, 25, will come.“We’ll sit around, relax, savor the moment,” she said.“We’ll cry a little bit. But they’ll be good tears.”


Anne said...

Wow. Just wow.

Stephen Parrish said...

Like Anne said, Wow. If there's any justice, Hollywood will make a movie about this guy and give him a fat check. But I sure would like to see that mother of his get the recognition she deserves, too.

Laura said...

That is such a wonderful story to read! I'm looking forward to his book! That "I'm really smart. I'm a Democrat. I hate my clothes." part was great! I can imagine his joy when he was finally able to get that out!

Tena said...

"I'm really smart. I'm a Democrat. I hate my clothes." part was great! I can imagine his joy when he was finally able to get that out!"

I've seen this firsthand and it's awesome. One of the five year-olds my therapy dog and I visit has no language. Recently, she got a "talker". This small-scale computer has pictures that say what she can't. In the past few months she has gone from wild-child to confident and "articulate", if not downright chatty. She's very bright and has a shot at at great future. She must have felt like a prisoner in her own body.

Kim Stagliano said...

TENA - can you find out which talker she uses?? Are your therapy dogs for autism or other reason?? KIM

Tena said...

Hi Kim,

I don't think my reply came through. I said:

My therapy dog (lovely CALM female German shepherd) and I visit other places than the Autism Academy but that's my favorite and hers too. The kids are age 3-6. We also visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, Alzheimers,adult day care, etc.

I will email the director of the Autism Academy about the talker. It's small, like an Etch-a-Sketch, and has a strap so the little girl can wear it around her neck. I'll let you know ASAP.

FYI, my dog is certified by Therapy Dogs International.

Love seeing you on Miss Snark's blog!