Dawn Kromer’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled the first words spoken to her when she entered the Admissions Office at Webster to inquire about whether her twin sons Zach and Nick could attend the University. “He (the admissions rep) said, ‘welcome home,’” Dawn said. “That sealed it for us right then and there.”
Two simple words for most people, but for the Kromers, they meant the world. That’s because Zach and Nick both have what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that now is diagnosed as Level One Autism Spectrum Disorder. Symptoms may include impaired social interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities, but typically, there’s no significant delay in language or cognitive development. Many, like Zach and Nick, have very high IQs.
Dawn said she knew from the time of the twins’ birth that something was different, particularly when their motor skills were slow to develop and they were missing developmental benchmarks. Doctors told the Kromers that this is a common situation with “preemies” and that, with time, they would catch up.
The boys did excel, however, at reading. “I read to them constantly,” Dawn said, “and by the time they were 3 years old, they were reading the encyclopedia.”
Even so, other problems arose, and the Kromers started taking Zach and Nick to a psychiatrist when they were 5 years old. “Again, back then, nobody was talking autism,” Dawn said. “It was ADHD, whatever was the ‘flavor of the month.’” Social issues began to surface in a significant way when the twins were in fifth grade. “They would never play with people; it was always ‘parallel’ play,” Dawn said. “There was no ‘pretend’ play. They didn’t understand social cues and kids would get annoyed with them.”
The Asperger’s diagnosis came a year later, when Zach and Nick were in sixth grade. With that diagnosis came a lot of questions. Dawn went to the Judevine Center for Autism in St. Louis County for assistance. She enrolled in training classes and learned about setting up Individualized Education Programs, commonly known as IEPs, for the boys.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that public schools create an IEP for every child receiving special education services. Kids from age 3 through high school graduation or a maximum age of 22 (whichever comes first) may be eligible for an IEP. IEPs are meant to address each child’s unique learning issues and include specific educational goals.
That was a difficult time for the Kromers.
“We all were in mourning for a life lost,” Dawn said. “We were convinced that a normal life couldn’t be possible for us. I was so angry with people who have what I call a ‘neurotypical’ life.”
Because most people with this disorder experience difficulties with social issues, it’s not unusual for them to be shunned or bullied. “Middle school was the ugliest scenario that ever could have been,” Dawn said. “That’s when the bullying started. Our house was egged more times than I can count, and a rock was even thrown through our front window. We felt very much alone as a family.”
Also difficult for the Kromers was dealing with well-meaning people who were full of advice, but who didn’t understand the nuances and challenges of living and coping with Asperger’s. “People love to tell you how to do it better,” Dawn said. “We came to realize that there are times when you have to cut out the poison in your life. We made a break with some family members and friends. We had to learn as a family how to be ‘this family.’”
When the boys were in their early high school years, Dawn joined a support group at Webster University for moms of kids with Asperger’s. (The group was part of a Webster student’s master’s degree program.) At one of the meetings, Dawn met a mom with twin boys with Asperger’s who had just graduated from Webster.
“I thought this might be possible for Zach and Nick,” Dawn said. “It was my first thought of Webster instead of community college for them.”
In addition to being welcoming to the Kromer family, Webster also made the admissions process extremely easy. Other schools wanted extensive and expensive testing done, but Webster’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) only requested both boys’ high school IEPs.
“They said, ‘What we’ll do is sit and talk and see what they need,’” Dawn recalled. “I was so scared, but the people in the ARC reassured me. Jobs were arranged for both boys there and they really had a great experience. The ARC took the boys in; they took me in.”
Dawn also got involved with Webster’s Parent Council when the boys were freshmen. “I wanted to be the ‘go-to’ parent for special needs families here at Webster,” she said. “This University accepts our family dynamic as it is. Webster has learned the best way to accept these kids and families.”
With 500,000 Asperger’s students entering into young adulthood in the next few years, Dawn said other universities and employers need to emulate Webster: to be aware of these kids and their skills, to accept what’s coming, and to learn how to deal with it.
Today, Zach and Nick are entering their junior year at Webster. Zach is majoring in Interactive Digital Media and also minoring in Photography, while Nick is a Computer Science major/Science minor.
“Both kids are doing extremely well,” Dawn said. “They have excellent GPAs and both have jobs on campus. Nick still works in the Academic Resource Center and Zach has a job in the Communications Lab.” What’s more, both boys have jobs off-campus – Zach at Walgreen’s and Nick at Pizza Hut. To hold down two part-time jobs while managing a full course load is an impressive feat for any student, not to mention a student challenged with a disability.
Both boys are branching out socially as well. “The kids here at Webster are more accepting,” Dawn said. “The culture here is just ‘be yourself.’ When I walk around campus, I think my kids really belong here.”
This summer, Zach landed his dream job – a communications internship in Colorado with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a NASA contractor and space launch provider. Both Zach and Nick have been space fanatics since they were 3 years old and started looking through telescopes with their grandfather. Throughout their childhood, the Kromers took the twins to see a space shuttle launch and visited NASA several times.
“Zach has a large following on Twitter and he became friends with the company’s president, who encouraged Zach to apply,” Dawn said. To help Zach transition well, ULA paired Zach with a mentor who has a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s. “They will really watch out for him,” Dawn said. “Relationships are so important.”
Nick, meanwhile, is happy to be having fun with people. “He’s getting comfortable in his own skin,” Dawn said, “and he’s looking to get involved with Launch Code.” A local nonprofit, Launch Code creates pathways to economic opportunity and upward mobility through apprenticeships and job placement in technology.
“I am so proud of my kids,” Dawn said. “They’ve overcome so much and I feel like I owe Webster University everything.”
Going forward, Dawn will stay focused on helping families affected by autism spectrum disorders. “I know my calling,” she said. “I’m supposed to help other families like mine and pave the way for them. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I am so blessed. Webster truly is our home.”