Autism couldn’t keep him from top of class

by |
06/06/2013 10:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Alex Whittle is Greenport’s valedictorian, a remarkable accomplishment for a young man who has battled with autism his entire life.

Alex Whittle skipped to one of his favorite Greenport spots Monday a few hours after the rain stopped, the sun making its first appearance of the day above Long Island Sound.

The Dr. Dennis Clair Memorial Park near 67 Steps beach is a secret sanctuary, mainly because the nearly half-acre lush green property is hidden behind an area of overgrown vegetation along Sound Road’s east side. But the park is no secret for Alex, an 18-year-old Greenport High School student who plans to build benches there for his Eagle Scout project, to make the place more appealing and inviting.

The idea of enhancing opportunities for others to share positive experiences is near and dear to Alex’s heart because he’s grateful for all the help he’s received from his family, teachers and fellow students at Greenport schools.

Alex believes his accomplishments — which include top awards for playing solo piano at the New York State School Music Association festivals, National Honor Society accolades, acting in school plays and being named prom king in 2012 — wouldn’t have been possible without their support.

It wasn’t a walk in the park for this high school senior to achieve these milestones, especially earning a 97.258 unweighted GPA.

This year’s Greenport valedictorian has autism.

When asked what advice he’d offer other disabled students, he said he could answer in three words.

“Defy the odds,” Alex said. “What I mean by that is stand up for yourself. Do what you love and be friendly.”

Alex was diagnosed with autism at age 3, while in day care at Brookhaven National Lab’s Child Development Center in Upton, where his father, Ed, is a research associate in the biology department, working with genetic and protein engineering on plants.

Alex’s mother, Linda, who works in law enforcement, described the early diagnosis as “critical.” The form of autism Alex has is pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, known as PDD-NOS.

“Our pediatrician didn’t even know that he had autism,” Ms. Whittle said. “The window gets smaller and smaller and they’re less likely to have language if they don’t acquire it by a certain age.”

“We were very fortunate,” her husband added.

In addition to the early intervention, the Whittles said they’re grateful for the guidance they’ve received from Greenport schools.

The school convinced them to reduce the amount of time an aide spent helping Alex during the day. The transition began in eighth grade and by tenth grade, Alex was functioning independently at school.

Although the Whittles believe the move was the right one for Alex, they said the decision wasn’t easy.

“We were concerned, but it made him independent,” Mr. Whittle said. “He does everything himself. Alex knows when he has his exams. He’s always studying. He falls asleep with his books all the time.”

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Alex Whittle plans to build benches at Dr. Dennis Claire Memorial Park in Greenport for his Eagle Scout project.

Greenport High School principal Leonard Skuggevik said Alex is the first student with his form of autism in the district to complete the 12-year program without leaving the Greenport campus. Usually, students with autism enroll in other schools, such as the special education program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Mr. Skuggevik said he “couldn’t be prouder” of Alex’s accomplishments.

“Even without any disabilities, to do what he has done is absolutely amazing,” he said. “But with them, it’s just tenfold more amazing.”

Greenport special education department chairwoman Lauren Kollen, who is Alex’s high school special ed teacher, believes the district’s diversity helped him feel accepted by his peers.

They accepted Alex for who he is, she said, a caring and happy person who you’d sometimes find skipping in the hallways.

Alex also took Ms. Kollen’s social skills course, where he encountered a variety of students with different sets of social and academic abilities and needs.

The friends he made in that course also look out for him.

“If anyone ever said a negative comment to Alex, they stood up for him and shut down whatever was being said,” Ms. Kollen said. “The school is socially diverse and the kids look at other kids for who they are and not how they’re different or disabled.”

Ms. Kollen said Alex learned how to greet his peers differently from adults and how to initiate conversations.

Alex said since it was natural for him to succeeded academically, Ms. Kollen’s teachings played a vital role in helping him overcome interpersonal challenges.

He’s developed great friendships and has fond memories of dancing at prom and going to Disney World on the senior class trip.

As for becoming valedictorian, Alex said he was able to achieve that distinction despite a disability because he’s organized and spends time preparing for his assignments.

“I work rather slowly, but find some time to goof off,” he said, adding he’ll sneak into the kitchen for a treat, play computer games or watch YouTube videos during study breaks.

Ms. Whittle said she knew her son would excel in school when she noticed his photographic memory skills. One day, at age 3, he wrote his entire name, Alexander Joseph Whittle, perfectly in the sand the beach.

“This is a kid who had to fight to mainstream in a regular class and now he’s graduating at the top of his class,” she said. “You don’t know with this disorder what it means to different kids. There’s so much ability that these kids do have. You really have to try to pursue everything with them and see what works.”

Mr. Whittle said he was also thrilled to learn his son was this year’s valedictorian and said was elated by the news.

“Even if it didn’t happen for Alex, we only dreamed that it could be possible for him,” Mr. Whittle said. “If it didn’t happen for him, he far exceeded our expectations. Alex is a great role model for those who come after him who have disabilities.”

As the high school chapter of Alex’s life closes, he’s looking forward to studying math, science and engineering at Suffolk County Community College in hopes of following in his father’s footsteps.

“I love science in general,” Alex said. “I love to look at how things work in the universe. I love how a machine works. I love how nature works.”

[email protected]