Rachel Leonard, Wolverine Story

 

Rachel Leonard

“As told to Kadee Jo Jones”

 

I was born and raised in California until my family moved to Idaho when I was 16. I was about 7 years old when I got the unofficial diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, which is now categorized as level 1 autism. My symptoms were unnoticeable for the most part, and, because I was my parent’s first child and the first grandchild on both sides of the family, there was no one to compare my behavior to. I was a delayed walker, a symptom of autism, but my parents didn’t think anything of it because my fine motor skills were exactly where they should have been.

 

When I was a little older, my parents noticed that I got frustrated easily. If they told me that we were going to the bank, the gas station, and the store, but we didn’t go in that exact order, I would have a breakdown. Around that same time, I had started the second grade which was a tough year overall for me. My mother tells me how I used to come running to her when she came to pick me up from school and just scream at her, like I was letting off steam by doing so. It was then that my parents knew something was different about me, and they took me to see a psychiatrist. After running some tests on me, the psychiatrist told my parents that it was more than likely I had Asperger’s.

 

Throughout school, I never had an individualized education program (IEP) and I was actually doing better academically than most of my peers. The only difference between my peers and me was that my maturity level was a little behind. My outlook on school dramatically changed when I entered the sixth grade. It became apparent to me that I was different when compared to my peers. Bullies were relentless to me, and they even threatened to hurt me. I had gone from someone who absolutely loved school to someone who was crying on her father’s lap, saying, “Please don’t send me back!”

 

During a transition during seventh grade, I went from public school to private school. It was a tough transition, and I really struggled socially. Every day during recess, I would go into the bathroom and cry. I didn’t know what was going on with me. My mother told me about my diagnosis around ninth or 10th grade by telling me that I had a “cousin” of autism. I started to do some research on the topic of autism while in high school, and it became easier to understand after a while.

 

After my junior year of high school, my family made an unexpected move to Idaho. I had to transition from a small private school to a large public high school. After meeting with a counselor, I found out that I only needed four more classes to graduate from high school, and I started college courses at North Idaho College (NIC) during my senior year. My mornings would start at my normal high school, then by the afternoon I was attending a technical high school. This continued until I got my high school diploma at the end of that year in 2014.

 

The high school to college transition took its toll on me, and my first two years at NIC were rough to say the least. I had gone from such a structured school schedule to being able to pick my own classes, which was super different for me. I made some poor decisions, failed a portion of my classes, and had been lying to my parents about my grades for a year and a half. To make matters worse, I went into a tailspin of depression. It was so bad that sometimes I would wonder to myself what would happen if I had just wrecked my car into the light pole. I was having suicidal ideation and was in a generally dark place.

 

Despite the hardships of those first few years, something good did come from it. When I had started my degree, I was a declared math major. I wanted to go into the medical field originally. But after I discovered that I could remember and repeat almost anything to do with sports facts or statistics that I heard or read, I changed my tune and decided to become a sports statistician. Looking back, it was my version of echolalia showing due to my autism. Early on in the program I took a couple math classes — one of them being statistics. I hated it. Motivation for my major quickly drained. That following semester, I was searching for a language of some kind to take. NIC offered four languages at the time, three of which I was not thrilled about. The only option left was American Sign Language, ASL. I had always wanted to learn, and I figured that I had nothing to lose.

 

In that first ASL class, I found my passion again. I was enjoying the class and the material. I didn’t want class to end most days. During that class, my deaf teacher saw something in me that I didn’t recognize for a long time. He saw potential and a passion that is still alive today. With the help of a friend, the teacher, and the department head, before the semester had even finished I switched my major. I worked closely with the head of the department after that. She was my professor for the next few semesters, and she helped me a lot when my depression started getting worse.

 

In 2017, I was taking a class to help me determine which college I was going to attend post-associate degree. I had two colleges in mind, both of which were renowned for their ASL programs. I needed to list three colleges for the assignment I was working on, and I wasn’t quite sure what to put for the last option. The head of the ASL department had gone to the ASL Teachers Conference held in Salt Lake City, and that is where she was introduced to Utah Valley University. She told me about the ASL program UVU had, and I listed the university as my third choice on the assignment.

 

Upon researching each of these three colleges, I found out by accident that UVU had an autism studies minor. I was actually looking for information about the deaf studies program and came across the minor by hitting one wrong (in this case, right). This was significant to me because just a few weeks before this, right before my 21st birthday, I was officially diagnosed with level 1 autism or Asperger’s. To this day I still like to call myself an “Aspie.” The other two colleges offered maybe one or two classes in autism studies, but I was blown away that UVU had a full minor for the subject! UVU immediately went to the top of my list, and I applied to the university without even visiting campus. Less than a year later, I found myself in Utah with no friends, no family, and no support. I had nothing aside from my physical belongings. I didn’t do very well my first semester here, but I worked with the faculty and staff here and improved over time. Today I am doing very well, and I am excited to work toward graduation in 2021.

 

UVU has given me so many opportunities to succeed, and I feel like everyone here wants me to succeed every single day. A few of these opportunities include meeting President Astrid S. Tuminez, participating in the art soiree, speaking to parents of kids on the spectrum, and working on the parent panel in the Passages program. Additionally, I have been doing a work-study program with Athletics’ marketing and promotions department, and that has been so rewarding.

 

Before I moved here, I didn’t know there was an autism community out there. I am more connected with the community here, and it creates a safe space for me. I am happy to be studying something I love, and I am forever grateful for all that I have gained from Utah Valley University.