Thursday, February 20, 2014
EDITOR’S NOTE: Applications are now being accepted for AIM’s Foundations Program, a residential summer program designed to enable college-bound individuals with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism to test the waters of university life. Here is the story of one such student, Jeff Krull, who found success at Mercyhurst - all starting with the Foundations Program. For more information, visit the AIM website.
The words wouldn’t come. Try as they might, Randy and Nancy Krull could not get their toddler son Jeff to utter a single word, let alone the “firsts” that so many parents long to hear: “Mama.” “Dada.”
But at three-and-a-half, Jeff finally let everyone know what was on his mind: “Applebee’s,” he blurted from the back seat of the family car as they drove past a billboard advertising the restaurant. Later that same day, pointing to a bottle of cleaning product, he uttered his second word: “Fantastic!”
Yes, it was fantastic, thought his mother, who now understood why Jeff was so fascinated with books. He might not have been talking, but he was reading. In time, the family would come to understand this mysterious behavior as a manifestation of Asperger Syndrome.
What followed Jeff’s diagnosis was a litany of hopes and expectations, some dashed, others fulfilled. Getting a college degree, establishing a career, and building a productive and independent life was Jeff’s greatest hope as he grew into adulthood. He had come close to losing that dream once before, but after two years as a student of the Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), it’s as if the stars have aligned and his life is on track.
Now remarried to Paul Van Dyke and living in Moneta, Va., Nancy described her son’s Mercyhurst experience as “transformative.”
“Today my son has grown into a very responsible and productive young man with a bright and promising future,” she said. “I'm thrilled Jeff has found the courage to reach and strive, but more than anything, to finally discover the happiness and confidence that lie within him.”
A 24-year-old graphic design major, Jeff was familiar with Erie before enrolling at Mercyhurst. His parents grew up here, married, and later moved to North Carolina, where Jeff was born.
During his school years, Jeff was mainstreamed into the general population. He was a good student in high school and eventually earned a scholarship to a prestigious North Carolina university.
It was there that things ran amok. “Their program talked a nice talk, but they didn’t walk the walk like Mercyhurst,” Jeff said. “It wasn’t what I expected and I just crashed and burned.”
Unwilling to try another college and unable to get a job, Jeff wallowed around aimlessly, eventually following his mother and, by then, his new step-father to South Africa, where they lived for two years. It proved to be a positive interlude, marked by diverse life experiences, but it also served as a wake-up call.
Jeff wanted his dream back. And Mercyhurst was there to help him get it.
“Coming from Erie, we were familiar with Mercyhurst and still had family there so we felt it might be just the right fit,” Nancy said.
It took only one meeting with Dianne Rogers, who directs the Learning Differences Program at Mercyhurst and founded AIM, to have their hope restored. “She just got it; she understood, and that was comforting,” Nancy said. “I knew Jeff would be with people who would understand his strengths and weaknesses and know how to work with them.”
Everything from residence hall accommodations with like students to appropriate socialization opportunities to faculty support coalesced to help Jeff grow in purpose and self-esteem.
“The support system at Mercyhurst is really good,” said Jeff, who credited faculty, fellow students and staff, including Brad McGarry, who coordinates the AIM program.
“The school is smaller so the professors have time for their students,” Jeff said. “And the housing situation is good, too. We have an entire building in the Mercy Suites.”
The kind of camaraderie engendered by AIM has reaped unexpected benefits for Jeff. When his digital self-portrait, “Walking on Worlds,” was chosen for the Mercyhurst Juried Student Art Show recently, many of his fellow AIM students, for whom socialization is sometimes a struggle, attended the artists reception as a show of support.
“That really meant a lot to me,” he said.
Jeff’s introduction to AIM came through his participation in Mercyhurst’s Foundations Program, a residential summer program designed to enable college-bound individuals with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism to test the waters of university life.
This year’s program is scheduled for July 12-Aug. 2 on the Erie campus. The program focuses on the development of skills necessary to succeed in college and includes therapeutic, learning and social components. For more information on the summer program, visit the AIM website.
As a testament to the success of an Asperger student in higher ed, Jeff stands proudly. But, he said he couldn’t have gotten here without the support of his family.
“My mom never lets me forget how proud she is of me,” he said. “Having a loving and supportive family is key for the development of an autistic child.”
Mom, meanwhile, added, “For the first time in my life I can honestly say my boy is happy, and I can say Mercyhurst is largely responsible.”