Luis Torres, who has Asperger’s syndrome, graduated from the University of Idaho in December.

Luis Torres, who has Asperger’s syndrome, graduated from the University of Idaho in December.

‘I’m autistic’: At college, he fought stigma by speaking out

EVERETT — For Luis Torres, some of the most important lessons learned in college extended well beyond the classroom.

He earned his degree in broadcast and digital media in 3½ years with a grade point north of 3.7 while working at the University of Idaho radio station, the student newspaper and its Vandal Nation sports website.

Yet college also was about learning resilience and how to pick himself up from disappointing social situations.

It underscored to him that he is different from other people, but left him determined not to let those differences keep him from pursuing his ambitions.

“I understand it a lot better,” said Torres, who graduated in December.

“It” is autism.

Torres was diagnosed in the seventh grade with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form within the autism spectrum. In the eighth grade, he was featured in a Daily Herald “Super Kid” student profile. He’d been recommended by staff at Granite Falls Middle School for his strong work ethic, willingness to help others and his encyclopedia-like memory of auto racing history.

During fall of his senior year at Granite Falls High School, he was voted homecoming king, but he sensed friends drifting away as graduation approached in the spring.

“When I went off to college, I was essentially a nobody,” he said. “I was a guy who jumped into different groups and really didn’t have a home.”

There were roommates he didn’t connect with, feelings of isolation, anxiety and meltdowns.

“At the end of my sophomore year, I was almost on my way out,” he said. “… I was angry, dejected.”

He thought about enrolling elsewhere, in search of a new start.

He convinced himself that he’d be transferring for all the wrong reasons, that he mustn’t let his frustration get in the way of his college experience.

“I realized, whether I like it or not, I have to suck it up,” he said.

After that, things started looking up. He had a nice roommate his junior year.

He continued to enjoy life at the radio station. After his last final, fueled by Jimmy John’s sandwiches and Coca Cola, he pulled a 24-hour shift, his parting gift to his colleagues. The last song he played as a senior was the first one he played as a freshman. “Dream On” by Aerosmith had become somewhat his anthem with its lyrics of perseverance. He could appreciate the notions “You’ve got to lose to know how to win” and “Dream on till your dreams come true.”

Along the way, he’d decided it was time to share what it is like to live with autism, that more people need to know about it to better understand.

In November, one month before graduation, he wrote a column for the University of Idaho student newspaper, The Argonaut.

“For years, I’ve dealt with Asperger’s Syndrome and kept it secret from everyone until I graduated from high school,” he wrote. “Only a few people knew about my Asperger’s Syndrome and I hid it from others because I wasn’t going to let my hard-earned reputation fall down the toilet just because I’m autistic. It was a burden I couldn’t keep any longer and I have since accepted my disability.”

He explained that everyone with autism has a different story, that “we’re not just shy people or individuals with bad attitudes.” He urged people to take the time to get to know those with autism.

“All of us want to be accepted,” he wrote. “The best way to reduce the stigma is to recognize a person for who they are.”

As for himself, he wrote, “Autism is a part of my life, but it’s not how I let society define me.”

He went to great lengths to meet people and try new things in college. Besides table tennis, archery and indoor soccer, he took dance classes in jazz and ballet.

These days, he’s looking for work and planning to learn to drive.

His college transcript is impressive for academics and work experience.

It cannot explain the life lessons learned along the way.

“Everything I have been through is just part of my journey,” he said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3466; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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