Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Autism doesn't slow student in quest for degree

All the small yet extremely celebrated successes in Chad Winkler's 22 years have led him to his biggest success yet: college graduation.

On May 18, Winkler graduated cum laude from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, with a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering with a minor in history and chemistry.

For the past 18 years he has worked, pushed, struggled and earned each and every one of his successes. From the first time he was able to do a forward roll, to the first time he spoke in front of a crowd of people to now graduating college with honors, Winkler always strived for success.

His battles started at age 4 when he was diagnosed as being autistic.

Then, when he was in fourth grade, he was diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome (AS), which is just one part of the spectrum of autism, sometimes referred to as ASD. It is characterized by difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication.

"Now I'm ready to spread my wings and fly," Winkler said.

And that he will do.

In a few weeks, he will drive his new car and his new puppy to his new apartment in Salem, Ill., where he starts his new job.

"He's an amazing young man," said his mother, Becky Winkler. "He has had to overcome so much in his life and he's successful. I always knew he would be."

Winkler's success in life and college doesn't come as a surprise to his mother. Although she felt a level of personal guilt when he was diagnosed with AS, she knew he was still a child with potential and she never let him forget it.

"Even though others told us he would be nothing more than employable' in a sheltered workshop, we pushed him to do his best," she said. "He did it, and look at him now. It's just amazing to see the man he has grown to be."

Becky said there were times when she made him do things he really didn't want to do.

"We've always tried to treat him as a typical child," Becky said. "If he didn't understand something or he couldn't do something, we would back up and try it a different way."

She encouraged his involvement with 4-H, supported his efforts to raise public awareness of autism through public speaking and taught him to always reach for the stars.

Winkler is a 2004 graduate of Blair Oaks. Growing up with AS and dealing with the disabilities that come with it was not an easy task. Being made fun of by his peers, combined with having to deal with some adults who didn't believe in him, helped push him to succeed.

"It only made me work harder," he said.

"When they would say things like that, it just made me want to do better. It was hard, but I knew I could do it and I did."

Winkler is modest when he talks about the obstacles and hurdles he has overcome. A shoulder shrug and a smile are indicative of his level of pride.

Although he is proud of his accomplishments thus far, he believes no one should set limitations on themselves.

As he packs to leave his family and says goodbye to Jefferson City to spread his wings one more time, Winkler's advice to others who live with autism is simple.

"You just have to work hard," he said. "Just know what you want to do and work hard to do it. Anyone can do it."

For parents of children living with autism, Becky has one piece of advice.

"Treat them like a typical child," she said. "If they don't understand, back up and try it again. All children have the potential - they just need encouragement and guidance."

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