Charlottetown student overcomes social disorder to earn UPEI degree

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Matthew Taylor says without the support of Stars For Life For Autism, he would never have been able to make his way through university. The Charlottetown resident was, with considerable help, able to cope with his Asperger's syndrome well enough to earn a degree at UPEI.

Matthew Taylor’s walk across the stage this past weekend to accept his bachelor’s degree was a cause for celebration, but also a source of anxiety.

The 27-year-old UPEI graduate is not one for large crowds.

He has Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic disorder that has left him struggling to interact with people in certain social situations.

During an interview this week he discussed battling through his disorder to obtain a BA in history, Taylor said he was intimidated by the thought of graduation day, which will see him for a fleeting moment put under the gaze of hundreds of people.

Still, this highly intelligent Charlottetown resident has made great strides socially in coping with his disorder since being diagnosed with Asperger in 2006 following a short, and rather disastrous stint at Holland College.

“During that year, I found it very difficult to interact with peers in my accounting technology class and I possessed no sense of direction when it came to carrying out important class assignments or preparing for major exams,’’ he recalls of his failed attempt at a college education.

Fast forward to 2009. Taylor’s mother sought the help of Stars for Life Foundation for Autism, which specializes in programming to help individuals diagnosed with autistic-related disorders.

Stars for Life helped Taylor enroll at UPEI, and provided one-on-one support through his five-year rollercoaster ride that has ended in triumph.

The hurdles, said Kim Donnelly, day program manager with Stars for Life, were numerous.

Early on, Taylor would yawn loudly in class, he would lose focus and he would nod off in class. Proper grooming was an issue. Taylor also needed help with time management, as he would stay up late playing video games, at times until 3 a.m., then struggle to get to an early morning class.

The greatest challenge, though, has been the ongoing task of helping Taylor develop his social interaction skills.He had great difficulty approaching people, whether fellow students or professors, for help.

“My social development progress was slow at first, but with support from my educational assistant I slowly began to grasp the social nuances of certain situations,’’ he says.

Taylor lauds the Stars for Life support staff for nurturing his social interaction.

“Basically, a good old kick in the pants,’’ he says with a grin. “Most of the time I was hesitantly resistant about entering into situations that made me feel awkward, especially any situation that involves a large crowd.’’

A strong case in point was Taylor’s first class presentation at UPEI in a business course. He froze on the spot, leaving his professor to do the whole presentation for him.

Bit by bit, though, Taylor developed his social skills in a place that thrives on socializing.

Ed MacDonald, associate professor of history, was thrilled to see considerable social development through this student’s improved interaction with teachers and students.

MacDonald suspects there were times Taylor felt discouraged, and Taylor concedes he had considered packing it in on several occasions. But he toughed it out and matured in the process.

MacDonald says Taylor’s single greatest component of growth was in his ability to cope by developing a tool kit.

“I think there is a more conversational element to his interaction now,’’ says MacDonald. “Just to see him kind of open up and communicate on a more relaxed level is another thing I saw unfold.’’

Taylor was equipped academically for the task of obtaining a bachelor degree, he notes. The student had an overall average of 79 with his marks in every class in his final two semesters falling somewhere in the 80s.

“There was never any question that he could cope with the course work,’’ says MacDonald. “He was a historical sponge.’’

The big question was whether Taylor’s disorder, that made social interaction such a lofty obstacle for a successful run at university, would prove to be too great of a hurdle. He passed this major test, stumbling at times but never giving up.

A class presentation last year in MacDonald’s history class illustrated just how far Taylor had come on that front.

“I was pleased with him because it was a very effective presentation,’’ says MacDonald.

Donnelly credits Taylor’s intelligence winning out over his resistance. He accepted the support he needed to make it through university.

“If the support wasn’t there, I probably would have given up in the first or second year of this thing,’’ says Taylor. “I would say it’s been like a long, hard road where I’ve been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.’’

Taylor realizes he must continue to work on coping with his Asperger’s. In conversation, for instance, he still has the “odd slip here and there.’’

But he has the confidence, and determination, to forge ahead. He is now looking for the first time to move out on his own. He also wants to accumulate short-term work experience to pad his resume.

Ultimately, he hopes to one day work as a researcher in a calm, quiet library or museum setting.

Cathy Rose, accessibility service co-ordinator at UPEI, says Taylor is one of about 10 students at the university this past year that used an educational attendant that is privately hired but funded through a federal grant.

Most of these students have autism, but each one like all other students need to meet all standard academic requirements.

So the success of students like Taylor is one shared triumphantly by many others, from professors to Stars for Life staff.

“I’m very excited that it is such an inclusive environment here,’’ observes Rose.

Organizations: Holland College, Stars for Life, Life Foundation for Autism

Geographic location: Charlottetown

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