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Inclusion Conclusion

Joining classmates helped create the future, says one autistic man

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Chris Carrick spent much of his first 12 years of school looking for help fitting in. He seems to have spent his last four years learning another lesson in college — the value of fitting in just the way you want to.

Chris has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. He qualified for grade-school gifted programs, but didn't always know how to use his smarts in a way people found socially acceptable. Autism left him struggling to deal with other people the way most of us struggle with calculus: We're told we ought to care, but can't fathom why — or how the equations work.

Today, at 21, Chris has just graduated from Penn State-Erie and is headed to Pitt law school. That he graduated from Sewickley's Quaker Valley High School is the most astounding part.

When I met Chris six years ago, he was a high-school sophomore who had spent much of his class time away from his classmates. I sat in his living room to interview him about the idea — and the law — that says special-education students should spend as much time as possible in regular-education classrooms, where they can learn to be utterly ordinary by example. Such practice is called "inclusion." Quaker Valley eventually included Chris after the state Department of Education held a due process hearing.

As I spoke to his mother Ann in May 2000, Chris walked through the room twice before even looking at me, and when we conversed, he spoke as if this Pennsylvania coal-country native had been taught English in one of Britain's ex-colonies, so careful did his speech seem.

A few years previously, he says, a fondness for war-gaming and some miscommunication had gotten him kicked out of school on suspicion that he intended to harm his fellow students. He was sent to Western Psychiatric in Oakland for 28 days. The experience had two lasting effects: It got him the proper diagnosis — in the long run. And when he wasn't allowed to use his razor, it forced him to grow a fringe of beard that still descends straight from his jaw line.

The experience of seeing even part of his life in the news left him with another lasting desire — to make sure those high-school kids knew he had turned out just fine. "When I left, I was something of an urban legend," he says. "A lot of what got me through college was, 'Damn it, I want my reputation back so much.'"

Now 21 and using his father's last name, Chris Strayer contacted me out of the blue last week, hoping to complete his story.

The résumé-worthy items are certainly in place: majoring in poli sci in college. Joining a college honor society. Co-authoring, with one of his professors, an article in The Tulane Journal of International and Comparative Law: "Human-Centric International Law: A Model And A Search For Empirical Indicators." Scoring in the 84th percentile on the LSAT law-school entrance exam. Earning his degree with high distinction.

But of greater distinction to me is the degree to which he participated in campus life, even if at first he described it as "interfac[ing] with a few of the campus clubs."

He was still a role-playing gamer in college, but he also began helping with the social-justice campaigns of the local Amnesty International chapter.

"As a result of the inclusion — which no thanks to Quaker Valley we got — I had the social function to act as any college student might," he says. "I don't have a problem being out and loud-mouthed in public."

He was even secretary of Trigon, the campus gay/lesbian/bisexual support group, without quite concluding that he was gay. He appears to have joined the group simply to fit in better. "I never really pinned it down," he says. "Am I gay? I feel more comfortable around males. Having sex with somebody else is much more of a liability to me than anything ... "

In the end, Asperger's seems to have forced more self-knowledge and resolve on Chris than a 21-year-old usually possessed:

"I decided long ago not to have kids," he says, for instance. "One of my issues is a problem with piercing noise — say, babies crying. Not going to happen."

After law school, he has no plans to enter the adversarial arena of the courtroom, either. He wants instead to be a legal researcher or law librarian. "Legal work that helps people would be nice," he adds. "My thoughts are just to help people — the sort of thing I can live with."

It's the sort of thing I suspect the rest of the world can live with, too. "Normal" people included.

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