Grad with autism earns long-awaited diploma

DEL MAR — Among 632 seniors graduating from Torrey Pines High School on June 18, no one could be happier than Jeremy Sicile-Kira. And this isn’t the first time Jeremy has walked with his graduating class.
Three years ago Jeremy, who is severely autistic, completed the functional life skills track at Torrey Pines. For his efforts, he walked through the ceremony but he did not receive a diploma.
In the fall he proceeded to an off-campus transition program to learn living and job skills.
“He didn’t do well,” said his mother, Chantal Sicile-Kira. “He was noncompliant and didn’t want to do anything. He was bored.”  
Jeremy was educated through a combination of home schooling by his mother and special education that included taking mainstream classes at Torrey Pines in marketing, economics, social sciences and psychology.
Because he was unable to speak, Chantal Sicile-Kira taught Jeremy how to communicate using applied behavior analysis. The technique involves a laminated, paper keyboard, which Jeremy uses to spell words by pointing.
Frustrated that Jeremy was doing poorly in the transition program, Chantal Sicile-Kira spoke with Bruce Cochrane, executive director of pupil services at the San Dieguito Union High School District.
“Bruce said, ‘Why didn’t you have him go for his diploma?” she said.
Chantal Sicile-Kira learned that in order to graduate with an academic diploma, Jeremy first needed to pass a high school exit exam and earn credit in required subjects.
“The school looked at Jeremy’s transcripts,” she said. “Since he was allowed to be in the educational system until the age of 22, he had enough time to earn credit if he took two classes a semester.”
Another thing that worked in Jeremy’s favor was that students are given six chances to pass the California exit exam.
“We thought we’d have him take the test and use it as a baseline,” she said. “He passed it the first time.”
This fall Jeremy will start college the same time as his younger sister Rebecca, who graduates from Canyon Crest Academy on June 18. She is entering UC Davis as a freshman.
Jeremy will embark on a degree in journalism
or communications at MiraCosta College. This semester he got a head start by completing a course in intercultural communications.
Jeremy is already a published writer. He’s written a column titled “Life As I See It” in the school newspaper. In April he published an editorial in the North County Times. Currently he’s working on a book about his life.
In addition, he collaborates with his mother, who is an award-winning author, speaker, and president of Autism Making A Difference, Inc.
A few years ago Jeremy was featured in MTV’s documentary series “True Life,” for the episode titled “I Have Autism.”
Since then he has become a popular speaker who offers these words of advice to the graduating class of 2010 in a speech he’ll be delivering this afternoon.
“My real message to you today is: Teachers, never underestimate your students no matter how disabled they may appear or what difficulties they face.
“Parents, believe in your children and encourage them to fulfill their dreams.
“Students, give yourself the power to hear the voice inside telling you that you can create the life you dream of. Believe in yourself, and never allow anyone to discourage you.”
Chantal Sicile-Kira has always believed in her son’s potential, even when she was advised to “find a good institution for Jeremy” when he was growing up.
“He is heading to a good institution now,” she said. “It’s called ‘college.’”
This summer Jeremy was invited to address the Staten Island and Manhattan chapters of the National Autism Association. He has secured a donation of $500 for travel costs for his mother and him but needs an additional $300. To make a donation or to contact Jeremy, e-mail jsicilekira@yahoo.com.
Chantal Sicile-Kira has just released a new book, “41 Things to Know About Autism.” For more information visit chantalsicile-kira.com.

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