Affable, girl-crazy and indomitable when it comes to video games, Ian Gordon is the guy everyone in his class wants as a friend.
His room at Tucson's Chapel Haven West is where his classmates naturally congregate. And he's always the one to organize their pizza parties.
"Everyone gravitates to him," said classmate Sara Goralnik, 21.
"I guess I'm likable," said Gordon, also 21.
But it wasn't always that way.
The last two years, as Gordon describes it, have been life-changing. In 2008 he became part of the first class at Tucson's Chapel Haven West, a residential transition program for young adults with mild developmental disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum.
Gordon and Goralnik are both members of Chapel Haven West's nine-member class of 2010, which graduated Saturday. Class members range in age from 18 to 25.
Gordon has Asperger's syndrome, which affects one's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. It is generally considered to be on the milder, more high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
There are great variances among people with an autism-spectrum-disorder diagnosis. There's a saying in the community: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."
Typically, people with Asperger's exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics, though Goralnik and Gordon stress it's a misconception to think people with Asperger's are antisocial. It's just harder for them to find and maintain social relationships, they say.
For that reason, socializing is one of the focal points of the Chapel Haven program. Students reference a chart that moves from strangers to friendly acquaintances to family and friends.
"They want to be social and want to have friends, but they don't always know how to initiate it," Chapel Haven West director Karin Frodel said. "We talk about what it means to be a friend, and we show them the continuum, like going from a shallow pool to the deep end. You build trust, and as you get deeper into the pool you move along the continuum.
"Relationships are so abstract, with so many nuances and subtleties. The gray areas can be difficult to navigate."
Gordon, a graduate of Mountain View High School, spent much of his teen years alone, withdrawn and angry. He had a terrible temper.
"It's not nearly as bad as it used to be," Goralnik said. "He doesn't get mad as much anymore. When he does, it's about girls or sports."
His mother, Vickie Gordon, once feared a bleak future for her youngest son.
"We were sure he would never, ever live on his own, and we were not sure where he would be in life," she said. "He couldn't do anything on his own - no washing, cooking, even keeping himself clean and attractive. He never had any friends his entire senior year."
In retrospect, she believes it was her son's realization that he was different - and not the Asperger's - that left him so angry and alone.
"Now he's in a program where there are other kids who have also been considered different," she said. "They embrace those differences and accept each other, and for once these kids who never had friends have them."
Chapel Haven West is a branch of the Connecticut-based Chapel Haven Inc., a nonprofit agency that opened in 1972. The Tucson program is the only location outside Connecticut and is state-accredited as a private day school for special education. What makes it unique, in addition to catering to those on the autism spectrum, is that it's also a place where students live and learn to transition out on their own.
Since it opened here, the program has worked with the University of Arizona, which enrolls those at Chapel Haven as non-degree-seeking students. Graduate speech pathology clinicians from the UA teach a social-communication class to Chapel Haven students.
While Gordon and Goralnik are both from Arizona, their classmates are from all over the country. But after graduation, six of the nine class members will remain in Tucson, and will stay connected to Chapel Haven through its supported-living program for graduates.
Yearly tuition is $65,000, which includes $500 per month for students to budget for groceries and other necessities. Scholarships are available. The local program has a capacity for 24 students.
Students at Chapel Haven are immersed in independent-living classes and experiences, including job shadowing, budgeting, cooking and social activities. They take the bus around town and frequent university-area restaurants.
Both Gordon and Goralnik have found rental apartments close to Chapel Haven West, and each will continue with schooling on their own at Pima Community College. Goralnik wants to become a veterinary technician; Gordon hopes to become a sports broadcaster.
"I feel completely different than I used to," said Gordon, who now cooks, cleans and does his own laundry. "I find myself trying to treat everyone as well as I can."
It's a brain disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate, reason and interact with others. It affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, and it is often found in combination with other disabilities. The terms "autism" and "autism spectrum disorder" are often used interchangeably and refer to pervasive developmental disorder, classic autism, Asperger's syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett's syndrome. One out of every 150 babies born will develop some form of autism. This means that an estimated 1.5 million Americans have autism.
For more info
More information about Chapel Haven West is available at chapelhavenwest.org
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4134.