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Autistic - with honors

West Ranch High student Kevin Chu overcomes autism to get straight As and get into college.

Posted: April 6, 2008 1:18 p.m.
Updated: June 7, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Kevin Chu, left, his mother Karen Chu and father Joseph Chu. Kevin Chu has struggled all his life with autism, but has gotten straight As at West Ranch High School, where he will graduate in May. Based on his academic record and 1980 SAT score, he has been accepted at three universities -- UCI, UCSB and CSUN. The world is opening up to him. None...

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Kevin Chu is 18 and an A-student. He's aced honors math and he got a 1980 on his SATs. He'll graduate West Ranch High School on May 30 and has already been accepted by two University of California Schools - Irvine and Santa Barbara - as well as California State University Northridge. He has friends, direction and, most of all, possibilities.

And absolutely none of this could have been imagined only a few short years ago.

You see, Kevin Chu is autistic. And though you can get a sense of that now when you meet him, it almost seems peripheral - certainly not what's at the core of this bright, charming young man.

The struggle

Joseph and Karen Chu were married in 1989 and, when their son Kevin was born, had no idea he was autistic. There was no history of autism in either of their families and it took awhile before something seemed amiss.

"We didn't know he was handicapped until he was two and a half," Karen Chu said.

In fact, the couple had a second child by that time (Brittany, now 16, who is not autistic).

Kevin Chu got his "official" diagnosis at age 3.

"He started his life off severely handicapped," his father said.

Kevin Chu began school in Los Angeles County special education classes held at Emblem Elementary School, and later began attending Newhall School District special education classes at Stevenson Ranch Elementary School. Later he was "mainstreamed" at that school, joining the regular classrooms in the fourth grade.

Along the way, his father, who works as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, tutored Kevin. And speech therapy, social skills training and occupational therapy were provided at Stevenson Ranch Elementary.

"He's had speech therapy most of his life," Joseph Chu said.

Twelve years ago, Robby Chu joined the family. His mother explained that they had consulted a geneticist about the possibilities of another child being born autistic and were assured the chances were extremely small. Unfortunately, Robby Chu is autistic, possibly more severely so than his older brother. And this put an added stress on the family.

"We can't do things as a family," Joseph Chu said. "We can not go to a restaurant for dinner. We don't go on trips or to movies. We've had a different life, but we think it was worth it."

But despite it all, Kevin Chu kept working - and it paid off.

"He did not do well in elementary school," his father said. "In fact, in the sixth grade he mostly got Cs. In the eighth grade he was getting Bs and As and in high school he's a straight A student."

While that grade progression might not seem unusual, it represents a tremendous accomplishment for Kevin Chu, and his father emphasized that.

"He struggled. He's still very handicapped," he said.

Joseph Chu noted that Theresa Fox-Warford was his son's special education resource teacher at West Ranch through the ninth, 10th and 11th grades - and that she has been a great help.

Fox-Warford said that during that time span she found Kevin Chu to be a wonderful young man who showed concern for others. "He is polite, honest and hard working. In fact, I've never known a person so dedicated to overcoming a disability," she said. She also noted that he used every school resource available to him in order to improve himself as both a student and a person.

She said that all his hard work has not only benefited him, but she has benefited as well. "I've grown as a person, counselor and teacher as a result of my dealings with Kevin. This is a case of his positive attitude and influence being a blessing on me."

The autism not only made academic achievement hard, it kept Kevin Chu from having friends or enjoying most of the activities boys enjoy, such as going out to a ball game. Until high school, his father said, he'd never seen a sporting event.

"He virtually made no friends in high school," his father said, and explained that his son's social and emotional skills are a bit behind.

"Emotionally, he's about 15," he said.

"Dad!" his son instantly exclaimed - mortified by his father's comment, as any teenager would be.

And so, Kevin Chu spent a lot of time at home. Consequently, he reads a lot and plays computer games. He said that Halo and Metal Gear are favorites.

God's work

Thinking that his son needed more socialization, about a year ago, Joseph Chu got him involved with Grace Baptist Church in Saugus.

"He got involved with college students, who are more mature and accepting. Now he has friends for the first time in his life," Joseph Chu said.

Asked about this turnaround, Kevin Chu said that he previously found it "somewhat hard to have friends" and that his new friends were "God's gift."

Kevin Chu has also done volunteer work at the church, under the guidance of Pastor Dan Fetters. Chu said he had helped work with another "special ed kid" last summer. "We ran into a lot of challenges, but we overcame them all," he said.

"Kevin and I were kind of buddies during Vacation Bible School to a special needs child and Kevin displayed a real capacity to nurture," Fetters said. He noted that Chu will be helping him again this summer during Vacation Bible School. "He's caring and responsive to people in some distinct ways. He has an extraordinary recall of people's names, which they find endearing. He shows a high level of respect and is very responsive to direction." Fetters added that Chu is also a "voracious" learner, with "great recall and a capacity to bring back information and share it in a meaningful way."

College choices, future

As with many high school seniors, Kevin Chu is ready to take on his future. "It's exciting. I just want to be done with high school," he said. However, he is looking forward to the graduation ceremonies and noted that some of his college-age friends might come to the event.

And the truly exciting thing is that, like any graduating senior, after graduation, Kevin Chu is faced with choices - choices no one would have believed possible a few years ago. He has three colleges to choose from.

His father emphasized that his son's acceptance into the universities was based solely on his academic achievements, and that he got no special consideration because of his autism. However, there are issues to consider regarding his actual attendance at a school.

For example, if he attends CSUN, he can still live at home. If he attends UCI or UCSB, he will have to leave home. The accommodations available for him might be the deciding factor in his choice of schools. And though his parents aren't so sure living away from home is the right choice, their son is a little more confident. "I'd like to try that, perhaps," he said. "I'm going to let God's timing guide me in the matter."

When asked what he'd like to study in college, he said, "I would like to do some pastor science," and then agreed with his father that some computer science would go along with it.

When asked how he envisions his future, he said he'd like to go into Christian counseling. "I can show compassion to others, like Pastor Dan showed compassion to me."

"For someone who was rejected most of his life, he's still willing to be positive and give something back," his father said.

His mother is very proud of him, too. "His academic achievement is phenomenal, considering the obstacles he's had to overcome. Also his social achievement - he's found a way to make friends."

"The vast, vast majority of kids who are autistic don't get into a university. I thought he could be a role model for other autistic children. He's achieved academically but has a lot of potential. He can go a long way," his father said.

April is Autism Awareness Month in the city of Santa Clarita. For more information on autism visit www.scaan.org.

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