Late diagnosis of autism ignites a student’s success

Nathan Olson is a college student and an author. He’s a political junkie who takes pleasure in watching C-SPAN. He loves solo road trips, and has visited all 39 counties in Washington.

The 24-year-old Everett man also has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism. That was something he didn’t know until it was diagnosed in 2011, after years of academic struggles.

“I can’t explain it in words, to have my whole life make sense in two words — ‘You’re autistic.’ It’s who I am,” Olson said Wednesday.

Olson chronicles his struggles and successes in “A Journey Through My Heartland,” a memoir dedicated to his late grandfather, Herman Olson. In the book, released early this year by Tate Publishing, he tells what it’s been like to be discouraged and misunderstood.

He wrote of being bullied by classmates as a boy. As much as he wanted to go to college after graduating in 2007 from Everett High School, he said he was socially isolated at Everett Community College and felt he didn’t belong.

“Pretty much, I failed miserably. That was so depressing. It had been a lifelong dream to graduate from college,” said Olson, whose father is attorney and former Everett City Council member Mark Olson.

When the door closed at EvCC, another one opened for the young man. In 2010, Olson attended the SmartStart program at the University of Alaska’s Kodiak College in Anchorage. There, English instructors encouraged his literary efforts.

“The writing ability they saw was something I never knew I was capable of achieving,” Olson said in his book. On Wednesday, he recalled writing exercises that sent students out to experience Alaska’s stunning landscape.

Still, academic difficulties persisted. In late 2011, Olson at last learned why — the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a neurodevelopment condition characterized by difficulties with social interaction, communication and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Despite his challenges, Olson’s story is uplifting. It is indeed a journey of growing self-confidence, a tenacious pursuit of education, and an acceptance of being autistic. In a chapter Olson titled “My Day of Redemption,” he wrote that the diagnosis was like a light bulb switching on.

Olson is enrolled in a pioneering program for autistic students at Bellevue College, which he credits for an impressive academic turnaround. “It’s almost like having your own personal assistant in college,” he said. “I now have a 3.79 grade point average, and this program is the reason for it.”

The Autism Spectrum Navigators program, launched in 2010, serves 70 Bellevue College students, said Sara Gardner, a program specialist with the college’s Disability Resource Center.

“What we do is hire upper-level undergraduate students from nearby colleges and universities,” Gardner said. The peer mentors, all currently from the University of Washington, are “typical” rather than autistic students, she said.

Mentors meet weekly with students in the Bellevue College program, who also take a series of classes together in addition to their regular courses. The specialized classes help with organization, social interaction and not being overwhelmed by school.

“That sense of belonging is something the program definitely helps with,” said Gardner, who sees students making real friends. “And the whole self-acceptance, I have to make them feel they’re not broken.”

Gardner, 52, works from her own experience. She said it wasn’t until she was 41 that she learned she is on the autism spectrum. Sharing a painful childhood memory, Gardner said “I really did struggle.”

“In fifth grade, all the girls wrote a letter about all the things they didn’t like about me. The teacher showed it to me and talked about how I could improve my personality,” she said. “We may rub people the wrong way, but it’s the way we are.”

Rather than operating on what she called a “medical model” seeking to “make one more typical,” Gardner said the Bellevue College program helps students “understand themselves as people on the autism spectrum.”

“We are human beings like everyone else,” she said. “Every student in our program is without intellectual disabilities. All are college-capable. They just have difficulty accessing college because of their autism.”

It’s not unusual for autistic people, especially those with language problems, to be diagnosed in adulthood, Gardner said. “Their difficulties are sometimes seen as behavioral problems, rather than a difficulty in synthesizing communication,” she said.

In his book, Olson looks back at the past and forward to the future empowered by new information.

He is proud of previous successes. At the end of eighth grade at Evergreen Middle School, he was given a school service award for helping clean tables in the lunchroom. In 2009, at age 20, he testified before the state Transportation Commission in support of a heartfelt cause, labeling Highway 529 between Marysville and Everett as a “Yellow Ribbon Highway.” It was an honor to veterans, including his older brother, Matt, who served in Iraq with the Marine Corps.

Olson looks ahead with confidence. Having logged 7,519 miles driving his Kia Rio all over Washington, he’d like to take a longer trip to Glacier or Yellowstone National Park.

Finishing at Bellevue College and earning a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university are other goals. Eventually, he would like a job with the Autism Spectrum Navigators, the program now helping him.

Olson would tell any student the words he now lives by: “Be your own best self.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Nathan Olson’s book “A Journey Through My Heartland” is available at Amazon.com or: www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=978-1-62854-202-8

For more about Bellevue College’s Autism Spectrum Navigators program: www.bellevuecollege.edu/autismspectrumnavigators/

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